Depends on What You Mean by 'Black'

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Getty Images

For many months, the media has saturated American audiences with analysis of the impact of race on the 2008 presidential campaign. There has also been much discussion about how closely the world is tracking the election. However, there has been remarkably little discussion about whether some of our basic assumptions about race and ethnicity actually make sense to those beyond our borders. In fact, one of the most interesting points about our current national discussion about race is that it's often confusing and counter-intuitive to the rest of the world.


To understand why this is the case, we first have to think about what makes America different. In contrast to the experiences of the most nations, our unique history makes it hard for Americans to view racial issues outside the prism of color. Given the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination based on color, this makes sense. What's no less true, but less often acknowledged, is the extent to which we willingly accept the notion that being African American is also related to one's ideas and positions on issues.

We need only look as far as the recent resurgence of the debate about whether Bill Clinton was the first "black president." Frankly, this kind of discussion could only be had in America. It's premised on the idea that being black is determined by one's philosophies and political agenda, as opposed to being about whether someone has African ancestry. No one would even think to ask whether John McCain is more white than Mitt Romney, or whether the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming is more Asian than the Milwaukee Bucks' Yi Jianlian. The whole notion would seem absurd. However, it's still acceptable in our society to discuss blackness as if it's related to the way one thinks. Of course, good old fashioned skin color still dominates racial discussions in America. But for many in our country, how you think is as important as how you look when it comes to race.

Given America's racial struggles over the years, the fact that an African American has done so well in the Democratic primary process has caught both Americans and non-Americans by surprise. Foreign commentators have repeatedly noted how the world is both intrigued and encouraged that this controversial superpower is seriously considering a black person for the highest job in the land. They see an America that is beginning to live up to its ideals. But it's doubtful that many non-Americans have been asking whether a candidate who looks black is actually black, or whether a former president who looks white is essentially black because of his special relationship with African Americans.

This is because most of the world doesn't expect to glean much solely from the fact that someone is black. And they certainly don't expect to derive a blueprint as to how a person thinks, or should think, about politics or public policy. They see racial issues through a different prism. Yes, there is much bigotry and discrimination against people of color in many societies around the world. But instead of asking "what color are you?" or "do you look at issues in a way that makes sense for people of color to look at them?", many people beyond our shores believe that it's more informative to ask "where are you from?"

Most African Americans who have spent significant time in Europe, for example, have probably experienced this distinction, and know that blacks from America are viewed with more affection than blacks from elsewhere. The long and positive history of African Americans defending free Europe as soldiers during the first and second world wars, and residing in Europe as intellectuals, artists, writers, and jazz musicians throughout the 20th century has left many Europeans with a positive impression of black America. Contrast this with the discrimination in most European countries levied against black and brown immigrants from the developing world, and their children. As an African American, you are an American first and black further down the descriptive list. (You are also a different kind of American, so less likely to bear the brunt of anti-Americanism.) As an African, you are too different, and thus a symbol of unwelcome cultural change and anxiety.

Perhaps America and Europe can actually learn from each other during this election season. In the U.S., we could work to let go of the outdated notion that being black is partly a state of mind. Just as whites are free to be progressive or conservative, visionary or reactionary, internationalist or local-minded, so, too should blacks. We could take a page from the Europeans and internalize the fact that being black doesn't tell you much of anything, and rightly shouldn't. Europeans, on the other hand, could strive to embrace their immigrants of color in the same way they have historically embraced African Americans. They should realize that cultural differences can and do add value and richness to Western societies, and be as encouraged by their own diversity as they are by America's.


Spencer P. Boyer is a regular contributor to The Root.