The double standard of race categorization

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.


23 responses to “The double standard of race categorization

  1. Ought Barak Obama be described as some(one)thing other than who he is?
    Is he to be described as we believe he ought to be?
    Finally, why is it racist to call him ‘black’? I believe he calls himself a ‘black’ man with a mother as white as ‘the driven snow’ if my memory serves me well.
    Generally, I agree with you re racism – it is ugly – the upshot perhaps in part to the teaching of the Hamitic curse which supposedly condemned all ‘black-skinned peoples’ to eternal inferiority.
    “………do not typically do so because of racial prejudice, but because of force of habit and cultural osmosis” and some religious inculcation too. The latter may be very difficult to shift but wouldn’t it be glorious if ‘man’ could be humane to his fellow man irrespective of colour and other differences?
    I take issue however with degrees of colour – how does one measure this notion?

  2. Hey Matt,

    You should listen to Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet”


  3. Hey Matt,

    Totally agree with this. I’ve often thought about this double standard in regard to Obama. I suppose, give the context of this kind of irregular categorisation, it is still somewhat significant to speak of the first American president ‘with black characteristics’, and perhaps ‘first black president’ can be seen as shorthand for this.

    However, I think you are right that the system of categorisation is implicitly racist. The anthropologist Lionel Tiger describes it as the ‘contamination metaphor’, where any ‘contamination’ of ‘whiteness’ by ‘black characteristics’ disqualifies a person from the former category. Richard Dawkins also mentions the phenomenon in The Ancestor’s Tale (2004, pp. 411-413).

  4. The whole notion of race is extremely confused and adhoc, and has little biological standing. Wouldn’t it be more to the point to show the absurdity of trying to figure out percentages, than talking about them as if they mean something? The use of these terms is by no means fixed. As recently as the 1930s Somerset Maugham referred to Malaysians as Black, so one can presume this was acceptable to his British/Western audience.

    Anyway, it seems to me the analogy to Kenya is irrelevant. There were no headlines proclaiming “White man elected President” in the USA either. People in the USA are almost forced to make a racial identification, it’s certainly part of government procedures. Obama’s self-identification as Black and African-American is a big reason why he’s invariably referred to as such. Read the 60 Minutes interview with him where they ask him repeatedly why he doesn’t identify as White, given a White mother and White upbringing. They had to push him pretty hard before he finally admitted he identifies as Black because he thinks that’s what he looks like:

    Self-identification is not the only reason – Tiger Woods always seems to be referred to as Black too, I’ve noticed, even though this is at most 25% of his background and he does not self-identify as Black. I think he looks more Thai. I am cynical enough to suspect a desire to raise Black status by latching onto any successful person with some Black background.

    I don’t like the way your last paragraph slides from “this is one plausible answer” to using it as if it were proven or even well-supported. ‘plausible’ just means it sounds good, in other words it matches your existing beliefs. Are you suggesting racism didn’t exist before European colonialism? Any historian can show otherwise. The ancient Egyptians didn’t think much of their Nubian neighbors, neither did the Israelites as Eva points out. The Han Chinese and Japanese have been sniffy about non-Han and non-Japanese for centuries. The twin notions of others’ inferiority and avoiding contamination by them are near-universal among human societies. If you are referring to a very particular racial construct, this should be made clearer.

  5. Thanks James. I am a fan of Public Enemy, but I hadn’t heard this song before.

  6. Thanks Adam. I agree with your suggestion about Obama. I was actually just using the Obama example as a vehicle to make a general point about irregular categorization.

  7. Your position is very well put. I agree with the general thrust of your argument. I think that much of what you describe is an unfortunate legacy of what has been called the “one drop rule”. The idea being that any non-European ancestry makes someone non-European. A more nuanced approach is obviously needed.

    That said, in some cases it may be entirely reasonable to refer to someone who only has some African ancestors as African American. I say this because it might have been the case that they have been viewed by society as African American, and as a consequence have come to conceive of themselves as African American, despite their largely European heritage. Analogously, many Indigenous Australians have a great deal of Irish, Scottish and English heritage, and yet conceive of themselves as simply Aboriginal. This is arguably in part because of the fact that society has viewed them as Aboriginal, rather than as people who are also of Irish, Scottish or English heritage.

    As a rule though, I think that we ought to be far more careful in our use of language that ascribes background or identity to individuals. To use an example that illustrates a slightly different point, in contemporary Australia it is not uncommon to see people being identified as Chinese or Indian, when in fact these labels do not in any meaningful way capture their identity. Unfortunately well-meaning people often use language which ascribes identity on the grounds of physical characteristics that may in fact have very little, if any bearing on identity.

  8. Thanks for the comments Tiina. There is a clear consensus in contemporary science that ‘race’ as a biological concept is untenable. [See for example: and Folk discourse about ‘race’ seems committed to races being well-defined biological categories. Thus, given that science tells us there are no such categories, it might seem that racial distinctions are fundamentally confused and should be abandoned. However, many argue that even if race has no biological reality it does have a social reality. Society uses biologically insignificant physical criteria to assign people to racial categories and these assignments have a significant effect on how people are viewed, how they are treated, and how they self-identify. Ideally I favour the elimination of racial distinctions. However, in practice I realise that racial distinctions are not going to end any time soon (despite the scientific consensus being around for at least 30 years, most people still treat race as a genuine biological category). My post was an attempt to point out an inconsistency in the way racial categories are used. Although I would prefer that society stop using these categories altogether, I think it is useful to demonstrate to people who are committed to using these categories, ways in which their own practice is inconsistent and perhaps implicitly racist. Thus when I used the term ‘race’ in my post, I was not assuming that there are biological races, I was just referring to the socially constructed concept of ‘race’ that most people take for granted.

    My slide from ‘plausible that p’ to ‘is the case that p’ was indeed logically fallacious. I initially used ‘plausible’ as opposed to something stronger because I have not done a carefully historical study tracking the origin of irregularity in contemporary racial distinctions. Perhaps a charitable way to read that last section is: Although I don’t have conclusive evidence that p, p seems the best explanation of q. So, suppose that p is true, here is what follows.

    I am not suggesting that racism did not exist before European colonialism. In the literature on the history of the concept of race, the orthodox view is that the concept of ‘race’ did not exist before the early modern period (See: However, I have some reservations about this conclusion because a large body of research has shown that folk biology is fundamentally essentialist and this would suggests to me that humans are predisposed to divide nature into discrete categories organised around essences. Given this predisposition, I would be surprised if it has not been common throughout human history to translate noticeable differences in physical characteristic between different human populations into different human races.

  9. I believe this is simply a matter of self-identification.

    If a person were to sincerely identify as being from one racial or cultural background, this is a perfectly acceptable reason to justify referring to them as from this background.

    However, I think it is important that until a person has explicitly identified with such a race or culture, that we must be using neutral terms to refer to them.

    A pretty good one is ‘human’.

  10. To follow on:

    Eva touched on this right at the beginning of the discussion.

    US President Obama openly & explicitly identifies with a ‘black’ heritage.

    This is why we are referring to him as ‘black’ – and thus why he would not be the ‘first white president’ of Kenya.

    We cannot make any assumptions and subsequent (often wrongheaded) conclusions from purely physical characteristics – or even possibly genetic heritage – alone; before making any references to an individual’s heritage, we must first be sure of how they themselves identify, and nothing else.

  11. Di, as I have already said, the main point of my post was irregular classification in general and Obama was just a vehicle to make that point. But in terms of Obama describing himself as ‘black’, I think you’ll find that it is wasn’t so much a free choice (where Obama felt able to choose any racial category and eventually settled on ‘black’) but rather the fact that he lives in a society that defines him as ‘black’ (on the basis of an irregular system of categorization), and would think it strange if he insisted on being called something else. In fact Obama seems to suggest this himself in the interview that Tiina referred too:

    KROFT: Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?

    OBAMA: Well, I’m not sure I decided it. I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American. And when you’re a child in particular that is how you begin to identify yourself. At least that’s what I felt comfortable identifying myself as.

    It may well be the case that individuals have a right to choose how to identify themselves. However the stock of available categories by which we identify ourselves are given to us by society and often confined by social norms of appropriate and inappropriate use. Identifying irregularity (and perhaps implicit racism) in such categories is surely something worthwhile.

  12. Good point, especially that identifying irregularity is something worthwhile.

    I am posing a fairly idealistic solution to an extremely multi-faceted problem.

  13. An Ant in a Molehill

    ” I am cynical enough to suspect a desire to raise Black status by latching onto any successful person with some Black background.”


    I think, more often than not, it’s happened the other way around. See

    Also, the US Census has been written over time to diminish the population of people of color and to enhance the number of white people–black v. biracial and Hispanic v. non-Caucasian Hispanic.

    Why do people of color resist? Because we exist. Colorblindness erases us and we know that there is political power in numbers. We know the importance of the census.

    I’m cynical enough to wonder why so many white people want a post-racial America now?

    Why do so many white people want to claim Obama as something other than black? As half-white? Such “honors” are not usually conferred upon biracial people. Race is mostly a social construct…which was mostly constructed by white people. Why change the rules now?

    If Obama were not who he is, if he did not have the power that he has, I highly doubt (and he has said as much) that we would even be having this conversation. He would be just another black man in the United States.

    Really, why has the attempt to erase race come now–that is, at a time when white people are losing their status as the majority in this country?

  14. Molehill Ant, I don’t understand your comments. Are you responding to the original blog post, or to some of the comments that were made, or are you just rambling?

  15. An ant in a molehill

    The quote I responded directly to was made by Tiina on May 27, 2009 at 5:17 am. However, I was also indirectly responding to the original post. It seems to me that the attempt to “erase race” has more benefit for white people than it does for people of color now that some people of color are making significant strides and that people of color in the US will be the majority in the not-too-distant future.

    I think it’s funny that white people make rules–about race classification–and then, when it appears that the rules will no longer serve the original purpose of keeping people of color out of power or maintaining white dominance, want to rewrite the rules to preserve dominance. Because really, what will a colorblind society mean except that people of color are erased and do not exist and that, therefore, our needs as a group will not be addressed?

    Finally, I think it is so typical to assume that this is an attempt to “raise Black status by latching onto any successful person with some Black background.” Tiina, how much do you know about the history of race relations in the US?

    Historically, black and other people “passed” as white in order to move up socioeconomically or, in some cases, to survive. They latched onto the identity of the “successful race” because they felt that they had to. This did not have the net effect of uplifting the black race but of further fracturing the black community.

    Your comment strikes me as blaming the victim in that it does not take into account the historic context of white racism and acknowledge that white people created these racial categories. According to the racial categories that white people created, Obama is black. Why claim that black people are desperate to lay claim to someone who, according to white-created race categories, would previously have been identified as black simply because it would help lift our race up? The point is that white people created these categories, not people of color.

  16. Thanks for the clarification Molehill Ant. I cannot speak for the comments of the other posters. However where your criticisms seem directed against things I have said I will do my best to respond. You say:

    “the attempt to “erase race” has more benefit for white people than it does for people of color now that some people of color are making significant strides and that people of color in the US will be the majority in the not-too-distant future.”

    Ideally I favour the elimination of racial distinctions because these distinctions purport to track well-defined biological categories and yet do no such thing. However in practice I acknowledge that racial distinctions are socially significant and affect how people are treated and how they self-identify. Thus I accept that we cannot suddenly abandon racial distinctions and that progress towards more scientifically sound ways of describing human variation and difference will have to be piecemeal and gradual.

    Regarding who will benefit from eliminativism, there are two points I will make. First, I think everyone will benefit from eliminativism insofar as everyone abandons a set of erroneous biological categories and views human difference and variation in more accurate terms. Second, I think that people who have historically been discriminated against on the basis of the racial categories they are assigned will benefit because such discrimination will end (or at least become rare) once it generally understood that racial distinctions do not mark well-defined biological categories. I don’t understand what your reasons are for thinking that eliminativism will have limited benefit for people who have traditionally been classed in the ‘black’ or ‘colored’ racial category.

  17. Hi Matthew,

    I think your purpose would be better served by addressing the root of the problem, which is white privilege. Once white privilege is eliminated, there will be no incentive for anyone to “pass” as white or latch on to whiteness.

    In fact, I think this conversation has been dancing around the issue by focusing on everyone but white people. This is particularly strange since, as I noted earlier, these racial categorizations were created by white people for the benefit of white people.

    So why are we ignoring the roots of the problem–that is, white hegemony/white power/white superiority complex? This isn’t just a psychological issue. If we are going to eliminate white privilege, there have to be concrete actions. These include the redistribution of land and resources that were stripped from indigenous people all over the world, reparations, affirmative action programs that actually benefit people of color and other concrete steps that would create more equitable socioeconomic conditions between the races.

    Until we eliminate white privilege, “colorblindness” will be of no benefit to people of color. It will only mean that more people who are biracial check the “white” box in the census. It will only benefit the white race as it absorbs more people of color. This is problematic since there is political power in numbers. In the US, the white race has added numbers to its ranks by absorbing “Caucasian Hispanics.” Hence, the suspicion of many people of color toward efforts to reclassify racial categories.

    In Latin America, even in purportedly colorblind countries (such as Cuba and Brazil), there are plenty of biracial or mestizo people who pass as white and do not acknowledge their indigenous roots. Why? Because the colorblind society is a sham as long as the system of white privilege remains intact.

    Honestly, I think it’s funny that white people often assume people of color should embrace a colorblind paradigm. It’s as though white people need to not see race in order to treat everyone equally. I’ve had white people tell me they don’t see me as black as though I should consider that a compliment! The underlying assumption is that my blackness is something that I should be ashamed of and that I should be elated to shed or to have blocked from view by their colorblinders.

    When the political agenda of absorbing people of color to increase the white population is absent, it is usually a white superiority complex that drives the colorblind agenda and assumes that people of color will be gratified to shed our skins. The thing is, I’m comfortable in my skin.

    I appreciate living in a pluralistic society and am a believer in integration. However, I am no fan of assimilation. Eliminativism seems to fit squarely within the assimilation agenda. As long as the white power structure remains in place, this agenda is one that will not benefit people of color since we will be forced to assimilate into “whiteness.”

    Incidentally, black people in Brazil have been resisting the state’s colorblind policies with some success. Is it any surprise that these policies have failed to address the fact that black people in Brazil are overrepresented in the country’s poor population? I would posit that structural racism enabled by white privilege has something to do with that.

    In Cuba, the story is more or less the same. The state created and enforced rigid colorblind policies but did not adequately address the mentality of white superiority. Hence, today most of the best tourism jobs are closed to blacks. I can’t speak for other sectors.

    Sorry for the long-winded response.

    In conclusion, having created racial categories for everyone else, white people behave as though they do not have a race. When white people promote a colorblind/raceless agenda, it is, therefore, often actually a white assimilationist agenda. When white people dismantle the system of white privilege, then I will consider their so-called colorblind agenda more seriously. Again, until we eliminate white privilege, colorblindness will be of no benefit to people of color.

  18. Living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, my mother tells me that things are still harsher in the southern United States. With that in mind, around school I have noticed that it is much cooler to identify as something other than being ‘white’, in fact, the only time I’ve heard anyone self-declaring themselves as ‘white’ was immediately before being rebuked by a classmate for being ‘racist’. Additionally, I see it is unfortunate that we have scholarships for different races. What better way to promote the elimination of race than by only offering merit/field based scholarships? It all seems rather silly to me, chiefly because there is no scientific evidence for any race, and secondly, because we need to reserve the word race for more important matters, like distinguishing dogs and cats from eachother, and humans from visitors from foreign planets. ^_^

    Note: It also seems rather odd to distinguish races with Pedigree Collapse (check Wikipedia).


  19. I think Anon just made my point. Eliminativism would effectively destroy any programs that currently address the historic and current obstacles to mobility that people of color face and that are rooted in institutional and structural racism.

    In other words, the colorblind agenda is really a white supremacy agenda. It can be nothing else since, until white privilege is eliminated, the predictable result of the success of such an agenda would be the maintenance of white hegemony and supremacy.

    As Anon has shown, the colorbliond agenda is based fundamentally on a perception of white disadvantage. It is no surprise that it is mostly white people who promote colorblindness/eliminativism since this agenda does not so much seek to eliminate race as to eliminate programs such as Affirmative Action–programs that seek to address racial inequities, programs that many people of color recognize are crucial to attaining real equality.

    Once again, I have yet to hear any person of color say that they do not want to be seen as a person of color. In my experience, it is only white people who seem to have a problem with seeing people of color’s color. It is only white people who have expressed a need to be blind to color. (Maybe someone should start a company that sells these much sought after colorblinders. It appears that there would be a fortune in such a venture.)

    But of course, as most posters on this blog have shown, it is much easier to focus on the other as the cause of one’s issues than to focus on the root of the problem, which is white privilege and a white supremacy complex. (And, really, what else could it be but a white supremacy complex that would cause someone to tell another person that not only does she or he not want to see this person’s color and prefer to be blind to it, but also that she or he would like to institute policies that would effectively eliminate this part of said person’s identity?!) Apparently, it is much easier to erase brown people than to tackle one’s own white privilege.

    Once again, the problem is not that race or color exists, the problem is that some white people are incapable of appreciating differences and would, therefore, like to institute a universal “norm” of sameness (read whiteness).

    Colorblindness and eliminativism do nothing to address the persistent reality of white privilege and racial inequities but seek to maintain the status quo of white supremacy under a false blanket of racial equality. The colorblind agenda simply cannot work because it denies reality.

    I hate to put this in such blunt terms, but I honestly think that most people who promote colorblindness/eliminativism either haven’t really thought about its implications for people of color or are unwilling to tackle their personal issues of white privilege. If you don’t like hearing it from a person of color, check out Tim Wise.

  20. I just wanted to add that I can imagine how, if I were white, I might not like hearing this. I might think, here I had the best of intentions. I thought this would help people of color! Yet I’m being attacked for promoting a white supremacist agenda.

    I think maybe you had the best of intentions, but that you didn’t consider the actual consequences of your proposal. Unfortunately, people of color have too often been the victims of “good intentions.” Christian missionaries in Africa, for example, often truly believed that they were helping black people by destroying our ways of life–language, kinship and government structure, etc. Some slave masters justified slavery through a mindset of paternalism. However, you’ll find very few black people who think colonization and slavery helped us.

    The fundamental problem with your proposal is that it fails to address the root of the problem. You are focusing on the constant and not on the variable–the catalyst. Difference has always existed. It is human reaction to difference, which is variable. Why try to erase difference, which we have no control over, rather than try to change human reaction’s to difference?

    To be more clear, racism is not an outgrowth race! It is not an outgrowth of differences in appearance, but of the response (usually of white people) to these differences.

  21. Obviously, I’m working this out as I write. There’s an obvious flaw in my logic since racism would be defined as the negative response to phenotypical differences.

    What I should have said is that racism is a consequence of white supremacy/privilege. The dominant group seeks to maintain dominance through a system of equating differences between itself and the non-dominant groups with the inferiority of the latter. Again, we should focus on the variable–one group’s dominance–and not on the constant–the differences in appearance between the groups.

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