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Summer feature

Obama: black in the US, mixed-race in France

by Marco Chown Oved

Article published on the 2008-08-26 Latest update 2008-08-26 12:15 TU

Barack Obama visits Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, 25 July 2008.(Photo : Reuters)

Barack Obama visits Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, 25 July 2008.
(Photo : Reuters)

Now it’s official. Barak Obama is the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States. It’s a historic first: the first time a black man has received a major party nomination.

But wait, Obama is actually of mixed race: his mother is a white woman from Kansas, and his father is a black man from Kenya. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that Obama is the first mixed-race candidate. But, that’s not so fair either. I’m sure if we dug into the backgrounds of previous candidates, we’d find Italian grandmothers, or Jewish uncles or whathaveyou. So what then is so special about Barack Obama, and why is everyone so obsessed with his race?

“Barack Obama – while he may be half white – if he were trying to get a taxicab in Mahantten at two o’clock in the morning, he’d have a hard time,” says Stephen Maynard Caliendo, Associate Professor of Political science at North central college in Chicago and the co-director of the Project on Race in Political Communication.

Prejudices and discrimination are based on appearances in the United States, Caliendo says, so for people of mixed race “their lived experience is certainly one of black Americans.”

Despite being considered black in the US, in France there seems to be a lot of confusion over how to identify Obama. Many newspapers started out back in January calling him métisse or mixed race. Then, after Obama began to emerge as a serious contender and journalists took a closer look, one by one all the newspapers and magazines switched to calling him black.

There was no explanation offered, and the switch seems to have gotten under the skin of many French people. The internet is filled with reader debates raging on pages about Obama, despite the silence on the issue in the articles themselves. If Obama is identified as black in the article, a typical reader response quips that this is clearly untrue, that Obama is half black and half white, and that this shows how biased and inaccurate the French media is.

“In France, there is some kind of positive value in the idea of métisse/interracial,” says Guillemette Faure, a journalist for an alternative web newspaper launched last year in France called

After spending 12 years in the US as a correspondent for a major France newspaper, Faure published an article in June explaining to French people why Obama is black. Someone from mixed racial heritage in the US would be both black and white, she explained, but that same person in France would fall into a third ‘mixed’ category: neither black nor white, but something else.

She terms this “post-racial”. There’s something wonderful and valued in this post-racial identity, Faure says, and this falls right into the French idea of a colourblind republic of equal citizens.

“There is this big ideal in France of blindness, and everyone being without colour,” she said.

Despite this ideal, France remains a very white place. With more Muslims than any other European country and large immigrant communities from French-speaking Africa, one would assume that France would have politicians and celebrities to match this makeup. But until recently, there were very few black people on television, and no black representatives from mainland France in the National Assembly.

A figure like Obama is a long way off in France, Faure says, and this is precisely why he is so popular here. Now that French politicians on the left are adopting a more tough-on-crime, pragmatic tone, Obama fills an idealist gap for the left-wing electorate.

“If we had strong politicians in France with utopian visions, we wouldn’t need Obama to project our own dreams,” she said.

But back at home, Obama simply cannot present himself as The Black Candidate. “He cannot be seen as ‘too black’”, says Caliendo. Because Obama will need white votes to win the presidency, he needs to spread a message that breaks out of black stereotypes. Caliendo explained that Obama will have to say, “it’s clear I’m black, but I’m not that kind of black person, meaning that I’m not the kind of black person that you think of when you think of black people, because of the way you’ve been socialized.”

Recent advertisements introduce Obama to Americans as anything but a stereotypical African-American. “He’s trying to inoculate himself against the - even subconscious - beliefs that he is ‘that black guy’,” Caliendo said.

Criticism has already begun to surface saying that Obama is compromising his identity and his positions in order to get elected.

And Obama is anticipating racial attacks, telling a fundraiser in Jacksonville at the end of June: "They're going to try to make you afraid of me: 'He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"'

Obama’s navigating uncharted waters, and whatever the outcome, it will be a new chapter in race relations in the US that just might reverberate across the world.