By Matthew Hammerton
Consider the following thought experiment: Barack Obama achieves a momentous and rapid rise to one of the highest political offices in his country much like what has just happened in the actual world but with one key difference. Rather than climbing the ladder of American politics, it is Kenyan politics that Obama ascends. This scenario is not as far fetched as it might sound as when Obama was two years old his Kenyan father left Barack and his mother and returned to Kenya. What if Mr Obama had taken his son with him and Barack had been brought up as a citizen of Kenya? In this case, perhaps Obama’s political ambitions would have been played out in a Kenyan and not an American context.
So suppose that Barack Obama, Kenyan citizen with an American mother and Kenyan father has just been elected President of Kenya. What will the headlines say? One thing they definitely won’t say is: “White man elected as President of Kenya for the first time”. In fact, many people would find this headline absurd – Obama is not a white man he is a black man. If Obama was elected president of Kenya it might be significant that he is the first president to have an American parent, or even the first president to have one parent who is white, but nobody would describe him as ‘Kenya’s first white President’.
But let’s pause on this. Obama’s heritage is one half black and one half white. So why does “Black man elected president” sound credible in a US context while “White man elected president” seems incorrect or even absurd in a Kenyan context? Why is it acceptable to describe Obama as ‘black’ but misleading to describe him as ‘white’? The answer has to do with the way racial categorizations are applied. The categorization ‘black’ (and the same can be said for some other racial categorizations like ‘Asian’) is applied in such a way that people are described as ‘black’ if they have any noticeable ‘black characteristics’. On the other hand, the categorization ‘white’ is applied such that people of predominantly white heritage but with noticeable ‘black characteristics’ are not counted as white. This means that most combinations of ‘white’ and ‘black’ heritage an individual can possess end up being classed as ‘black’. We can call this system of racial categorization ‘irregular’ as it involves applying racial categories in a way disproportionate to the actual racial heritage of the individual. A child with ½ black heritage and ½ white heritage is usually classed as ‘black’ and never classed as ‘white’. A child with ¼ black heritage and ¾ white heritage is often classed as ‘black’ and may also be classed as ‘mixed race’, but is rarely classed as ‘white’. A child with ¾ black heritage and ¼ white heritage is nearly always classed as ‘black’ and rarely classed as ‘mixed race’.
This account of racial categorization is very obvious when one cares to look. Several well-known ‘black men’ and ‘black women’ actually have combined white and black heritage, some even have predominantly white heritage (eg. Alicia Keys). Of course, the system of racial categorization I have described is not unanimous. Sometimes terms like ‘mixed race’ or ‘bi-racial’ are consistently used to describe anyone who has a mixture of races in their heritage. The term ‘African American’ is also sometimes used as an alternative to ‘black’ and in its typical usage does not involve irregular categorization.
Finally, people who have a predominantly black heritage (perhaps >90%), will sometimes class those with mixed black and white heritage as not ‘real’ blacks. But despite these exceptions, on the whole, the irregular racial categorization system I have described is dominant across the western world and is evident in folk discourse on race.
How did these categorization practices arise? One plausible answer is that they come from the crude racial theories that were adopted by Europeans during the slavery era and which regarded the white race as superior and more pure than other races. As a result of these theories, any noticeable ‘non-white characteristics’ where associated with inferiority or impurity and people possessing these characteristics where subsumed into non-white racial categories, even if they where predominantly white in heritage. That such an irregular system of racial categorization was used during a period when prejudicial racial science was dominant is not a surprise. What is surprising is that today in a post-colonial, post-slavery and post-segregation era, the same irregular system of racial categorization continues. Modern usage of this irregular system usually does not reflect explicit racial prejudice. Those inclined to judge someone of equal black and white heritage as ‘black’, do not typically do so because of racial prejudice, but because of force of habit and cultural osmosis. However, even if this practice is not explicitly racist, it is the legacy of a racist era and we should ask ourselves whether our use of irregular racial categorization is implicitly racist? If we think it is implicitly racist, then this suggests we ought to reform our practice and begin to describe people with a multiracial heritage in more neutral terms that neither privilege nor neglect any one part of their heritage.