President Barack Obama pictured with his maternal grandparents Stanley and Madelyn Dunham
Reading through the headlines this morning I came across several which made mention of the UK possibly having its first ‘black prime minister’. It did not take me long to work out that all these headlines were referring to Labour MP and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who yesterday officially announced that he hopes to be the future Labour party leader. After all, how many other prominent politicians with a darker skin tone are there who, realistically, are in a position whereby they could be prime minister in the not so distant future? So, then, I got to thinking. Why have all these media channels chosen to refer to Chuka Umunna, who has publicly spoken about his mixed-race heritage and has a white mother, as ‘black’? Should I care? Is it just a small misnomer?
I myself am mixed-race and have had discussed many a time, with both friends and family, why it is that successful or prominent mixed-race people tend to get put into the category of ‘black’. Some argue that such labelling is not only inaccurate but offensive since it denies those people an entire half of their background, culture and upbringing and erases, if you like, their whiteness. (Interestingly, it is never a case of mixed-race people being labelled white and having their partial blackness entirely denied and overlooked.) On the other hand, some say “so what?” and suggest that it does not really matter since such categorisation of humans into socially constructed races is futile and meaningless anyway. Others will say that mixed-race people are “practically black anyway.”
None of these responses are sufficient for me. Regardless of whether race is an invented thing, there are still experiences which are unique to mixed-race people and therefore I do find the conflation of ‘black’ and ‘mixed-race’ to be problematic. For example, the confusion, that many mixed-race people can testify to feeling at least at one point in their lives (if not constantly), over where they belong – to the black community or white community or the kind of grey area in between – is different to the questions of cultural belonging that, say, black people may have.
Then there is the concept of erasure and denial of the whiteness in mixed-race people when you refer to them as ‘black’. Sticking to the example of Mr Umunna, to call him ‘black’ relegates his white mother to what position in his life? To call Mr Umunna black seems to me to, effectively, deny his mother’s very existence since a ‘black’ person (sticking to a very basic definition of what of course is a largely meaningless epithet anyway) presumably has two black parents. If he is ‘black’ then where is there room to recognise all of his mother’s nurturing and investment in her son?
It seems to me that there is not only an extreme laziness, but gross inaccuracy, in shoving mixed-race people under the umbrella term ‘black’.
Bob Marley (left) and his farther, Norval Sinclair Marley, (right)
Many of the people that we have been taught to believe are ‘black’ heroes are in fact mixed-race. Mary Seacole, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, all mixed-race but generally considered black. I do not make this point to deny the black community their heroes but because I think that the fact that many people genuinely do not know that these people are mixed-race hinders their understanding of the people (for example, that Bob Marley was picked on by his peers as a child because his father was a white man) and is contributing to an incomplete comprehension of not only their personal history but, more generally, the history of race.
This discussion of course would not be complete if I did not touch on shadeism, simply defined as ‘the discrimination of individuals based on skin tone’. It should be noted here that such discrimination generally favours lighter skin. From the disproportionate presence of light-skinned black women in the music or film industry in the UK and the United States, to the more formal and overt caste-system in India, shadeism is a very real issue. Another reason why referring to mixed race people as ‘black’ is problematic for me is because it helps deny that shadeism exists and that it remains much more difficult for black people to rise to the top – whether it be in acting, politics or other walks of life – than their fairer complexioned counterparts.
Herein largely lies my issue with Obama constantly being referred to as the first black President of the United States. I’m sure you have all heard the (frankly laughable) suggestion that because Obama, a ‘black’ man, is president of the U.S., America must be a post-racial society where black people are held as equals by whites. But if we think back to the Obama presidential campaign we cannot overlook how much attention was paid to his white mother and the white grandparent who raised him as a boy. I am not saying that Obama would not have won the presidency if he was entirely African-American, that would wholly undermine his talents, ability and what was one of the greatest presidential campaigns of all time. But what I will say is that seeing pictures of Obama sat with his white relatives may have made him more ‘acceptable’ to those white Americans who previously would not have imagined ever voting for an African-American president and still harboured some reservations about a non-white candidate filling the position.
Obama brings me nicely onto my next point about the conflation of ‘mixed-race’ and ‘black,’ notably the fact that this merging is American in origin. In the days of slavery the ‘one-drop rule’ was observed, meaning that any mixed-race person, even if they physically appeared white, was classified as a Negro and therefore legally a slave. So in a way it makes sense that Americans refer to mixed-race people – and mixed-race Americans often self-identify – as ‘black’, since they tend to be treated as a homogenous group by white America and have been for most of America’s history. That said, although bunched together with other, fully black, slaves and subjected to many of the same cruelties, lighter-skinned slaves tended to be awarded certain ‘privileges’ and treated more favourably (it is well known, for example, that they were often ‘house slaves’). A whole new group of words were even created to try and categorise the new mixed-race population that was increasingly growing (in light of white slave masters raping their slaves etc.) including terms such as ‘quadroon’ (‘a person who is one-quarter black by descent’) and ‘mulatto’.
For the reasons stated above it did not surprise me much that Obama, as an American, was labelled ‘black’. But Chuka Umunna is not American so why is he being labelled ‘black’ even by British media publications? Is it because he is, as mixed-race people go, relatively dark-skinned? Is it an attempt, in the midst of all the ugly anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment that Ukip and others have shamelessly whipped up in the election run-up, to cast Mr Umunna as an ‘other’ and hamper his chances of winning? Is it because Britain, like the United States, would like to prematurely pat itself on the back for reaching a significant milestone in race relations when in fact there is still a long, long way to go? After all ‘the first mixed-race prime minister’ (which reminds everyone that Mr Umunna is in fact half-white), reveals the reality that Britain – just like the U.S. – may not actually be ready to have a wholly black man or woman as their ultimate leader. Maybe I'm being cynical. Perhaps it just reflects the fact that the media is generally run by older white men who perhaps are wholly ignorant to the distinctions between 'mixed-race' and 'black'? Or, maybe these editors just believe that the difference is between 'mixed-race' and 'black' is so nuanced that it is not worth differentiating between the two. I hope that I have put forward a convincing enough argument that the contrary is true: 'mixed-race' and 'black' do no amount to the same thing and as such should stop being conflated.