Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Black and White and Gray (Grey)

As the racism begins to boil to the surface of US politics again, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law on my last visit to North Carolina. I am, of course, the black sheep of the family, voting for the Obama in the last election. My brother-in-law, living in a sea of Republicans in rural NC, rather than avoid discussing politics with me, brought up the point, “Well, Obama’s as much white as he is black, isn’t he?”

My brother-in-law’s perspective may be spreading; witness the fact that North Carolina voted for Obama in the 2008 elections. On the surface, the remark makes clear that racism remains a real if fading political factor in the US. What interests me, though, is a deeper, more subtle semantic question at issue here: Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first “African American” female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?

So it is in the US: if you are any part African American, you are African American. If you have just a few drops of African blood in you and you call yourself white, you are “passing” for white, the word passing implying deception. Why is a person who is 1/16 African and 15/16 European deceiving people that he or she is  white? You can only get 1/16 whiter. Why isn’t a person who is 1/16 white and 15/16 black, “passing” for black? In other words, why doesn’t the majority win in determining race as it does in determining elections?

I always taught my students that the language we speak does not determine our attitudes; however, our attitudes are reflected in how we speak. The definitions of black and white in US politics tell a sad tale of how we still think of the races in the US. So what is president Obama? Simple. He is a man.

2 Responses to “Black and White and Gray (Grey)”

  1. Neal Whitman Says:

    Thanks for taking up this topic. I’ve wondered about it myself, remembering phrases like “even a drop” and “passing for white”, as well as way outdated terms like “mulatto”, “high yellow”, “quadroon”, and “octoroon”. Nobody (publicly) talks like that anymore, but the rarely questioned classification of Obama as black made me wonder if this kind of thinking was still going on.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    The logic is that a drop of dirt makes the water impure, so a drop of black makes the white person, well, black.

    Contrast this with Australia’s erstwhile plan to “breed the black out in four generations”… Both are kind of creepy, but they come at it from different angles.

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