Barack Obama and the Politics of Passing

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With the November election drawing ever closer the Obama campaign is beset with accusations of Obama’s “passing,” or claims that he's representing himself as a member of a different racial group than the one(s) to which he belongs.

None of this particularly surprised me, as I wrote several weeks ago about the power of passing when it comes to Mitt Romney, here on Huffington Post. My assessment of the role of passing in creating American identity was drawn from my new book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, which covers the same ground as many of Obama’s political and social critics. We come to the same conclusion: passing is alive and well. It is a unique part of the way we understand and enact the mixed experience.

Here’s where my take differs from the critics'. They think the candidates are too comfortable in their respective closets. They think that we’ll all feel better once everyone’s real identity is revealed. I think we’re focusing on passing because, for the first time, neither party’s presidential candidate is a white Protestant. I think that we must try to make these men fit into our social boxes, no matter how uncomfortable the fits may be, because we are in uncharted political and cultural territory. I think that’s why, when it comes to Obama, an increasing amount of media coverage will frame his multiracial ancestry as a cause of internal strife that has impacted everything from his politics to his choice in life partner.

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.

David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama — The Story also weighed in. According to Maraniss, Obama’s multiracial identity and ancestry caused him angst because he was defying the “one-drop rule,” the legal and social custom that declared any American with black ancestry to be black. In an interview with ABC News, Maraniss implied that Obama is a passer because he once referred to himself as an “imposter.” As Obama’s ex-girlfriend remembers it, the president felt “he was so white [and] there was hardly a black bone in his body” even though he identified racially as 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. Only then will wee see that Obama’s image is a prologue to interracial dialogue rather than a post-racial epilogue.