Barack Obama and the Politics of Passing

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, weighs in at the Huffington Post on the various theories that have emerged about the president's approach to and presentation of his ethnicity.

With the November election drawing ever closer the Obama campaign is beset with accusations of Obama's "passing," or representing himself as a member of a different racial group than the ones to which he belongs …

Reports are already turning to Obama's own words to set this frame. Take a recent episode of the Chris Matthews show as an example. Matthews used sound bites from Obama's 2008 "A More Perfect Union" speech to argue that the president was whit(en)ing it up. Apparently Obama was passing as white in 2008 by highlighting the white side of his racial identity. Matthews obviously believes he's not the only one who forgot the president was black …

As Barack Obama — The Story goes, making an "arc toward blackness" solved this tragic mulatto's mixed race identity crisis. That arc took the form of a move to New York where Obama could get closer to Harlem and to the "real" black America, without making any real black friends. And then finding himself in Chicago's south side with a black American wife.

So, is Obama passing as black this summer? If so, will he start passing as white come the fall? It's difficult to say, partly because we so desire the president's racial legacy to be one of racial transcendence. But if we can see beyond these simple constructions of the mixed experience as pathological and passing as the only viable media frame, then we may come closer to finding the answers.


Read Marcia Alesan Dawkins' entire piece at the Huffington Post.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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