The public’s reaction to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign will apparently drag us through an intensive national discussion on race whether we like it or not. Never before have I seen such a pervasive discussion of what race means today in America since his campaign. When white people ponder out loud how black is black, a black person must take a step back.

Glenn Beck, professional braying conservative jackass, has sought to convince us that Obama may as well be white. From Media Matters:

If you start to, you know, delve around the edges, say, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t he mixed race? Weren’t we told that last year?’ Or whatever, biracial. Not allowed to say that anymore.” Beck responded by saying “he’s very white in many ways,” adding, “Gee, can I even say that? Can I even say that without somebody else starting a campaign saying, ‘What does he mean, “He’s very white?” ‘ He is. He’s very white.”

Oh but there’s more! Beck went on to clarify later:

Beck claimed that Obama “is colorless,” adding that “as a white guy … [y]ou don’t notice that he is black. So he might as well be white, you know what I mean?” In addition, Beck said: “I guarantee you, there will be blogs today that will have me being a racist because I say that.”

Pam Spaulding has a great post on the meta-topic of race and the reaction to Obama. I’d like to add to this. She offered her perspective as a light-skinned black person. I too have light skin. Our family has many shades though so I know the historical tension between darker and lighter-skinned African-Americans.

You see, I think many darker folks believe that white people view them more negatively and that light-skinned folks have an easier time of it in American society. I have always resisted that notion. Certainly I have faced discrimation at school and at jobs (or when trying to get a job) as a black woman. The one-drop rule has always applied in my mind. Yet, perhaps I’ve been mistaken all this time. Perhaps Obama’s light-skin and mixed heritage do make a difference in the minds of white voters and pundits.

Besides Beck, I give you Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a book many Americans read in high school or college and one which no doubt leaves an lasting impression as it did in its heyday before the Civil War. In class, we never discussed the different ways in which Stowe distinguishes her lighter characters from her darker characters. It was a taboo subject, it would seem. It was after class that white classmates whispered to me, “Are you a quadroon?” or “Would you consider yourself mulatto?”

Carefully I would answer no as I’d been coached to do so by my parents, who anticipated such divisive questions. “I’m black like every other black person. There’s nothing different about me.” But what were my white classmates and friends to think when their (also white) teachers allowed such racism to slide unquestioned. What am I talking about? Here’s Stowe on darker slaves (emphasis mine):

“Now, Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing.” The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque songs common among the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing with many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in perfect time to the music. (Chapter 1)

and again here:

In order to appreciate the sufferings of the negroes sold south, it must be remembered that all the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong. Their local attachments are very abiding. They are not naturally daring and enterprising, but home-loving and affectionate. […] This nerves the African, naturally patient, timid and unenterprising, with heroic courage, and leads him to suffer hunger, cold, pain, the perils of the wilderness, and the more dread penalties of recapture. (Chapter 10)

In contrast, Stowe’s light-skinned characters do not speak in pigeon English or Ebonics. They are portrayed as kin to the whites with all their complexity and sophistication. An example:

The traveller in the south must often have remarked that peculiar air of refinement, that softness of voice and manner, which seems in many cases to be a particular gift to the quadroon and mulatto women. These natural graces in the quadroon are often united with beauty of the most dazzling kind, and in almost every case with a personal appearance prepossessing and agreeable. […]She had been married to a bright and talented young mulatto man, who was a slave on a neighboring estate, and bore the name of George Harris. (Chapter 2)

My question is: is this type of underlying set of assumptions about light-skinned, mixed race blacks the secret to Obama’s acceptance among whites — his half-blackness makes him “safe”. More like a white man. More like them than the darker Jesse or Al or Carol. And yes, Glenn Beck, I’m talking to you.

And: is this one of the factors behind discomfort with Obama among some in the African-American community? Black Agenda Report, Skeptical Brotha and African-American Opinion are all black blogs with some real questions about Obama and the issues, Obama and the man.

Having listened to the 60 Minutes profile on Barack Obama, I know he understands what being black means. Anyone who understands that “he could be shot going to the gas station” (with the implication being under a racial profiling incident) knows how being black can impact your life. I was impressed by Obama’s announcement speech and want to hear more from him. In the meantime, I remain alert to his portrayal and perception in the society at large as it reflects upon my personal perception among both whites and blacks. There are no taboos now inside Uncle Obama’s Cabin.

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