There’s been a lot of press about Barack Obama, a candidate for the US Senate and oft-stated rising star of the Democratic Party. And in just about every news story about Obama he’s referred to as “African-American”. But is he really?
It’s my understanding that Obama’s mother is white; his father, black (from Kenya). In America, if half a person’s ethnicity is black, does that make them African-American? Then what about if they’re a quarter black? An eighth? A sixteenth? Judging from all the stories and analysis about Obama, apparently it does.
I ask because I’m confused: I am half-Japanese and yet it seems to most people I’m anything but Asian (or for the out-of-date, “oriental“). I am an ethnic rorschach test to most folks: so far I’ve been pegged as Italian, Native American, Filipino, Hawaiian, Spanish, Mexican–even English (???). Yet when I tell people my ethnic background, the first reaction is disbelief, followed by the inevitable comment “but you don’t look Japanese!” I’ve actually had people insist that I couldn’t possibly be Japanese, giving me a detailed critique of my features (this when I was young and stupid and hadn’t realized that I don’t owe anyone an explanation about my ethnicity) as proof that I must be mistaken. (I’m making all this ethnic stuff up!) My own father (who is white) refuses to consider me as anything but white and looks bewildered when I refer to myself as a biracial person.
Yet I’ve also had complete strangers speak to me in Mandarin and Korean, looking confused when I don’t respond in kind. My white, 87-year old neighbor thinks it’s great I “speak English so well”. On the creepier end, I’ve had guys who wanted to date me just because I was Eurasian.
What do I consider myself? I consider myself Eurasian–neither fully white nor Asian. And I’m pretty comfortable with that–it just seems the rest of America isn’t
So in this country, if you’re part-Asian, your ethnicity is situational, depending upon just how Asian you look. But if you have a speck of blackness, you’re black, no matter what you say. Just ask Tiger Woods.