The Color of Change

Obama's victory is a new opportunity to explore outdated color lines.

November 13, 2008, 5:57 PM

Nov. 14, 2008— -- In the days leading up to the election, Tracy Rector, 37, wore a button emblazoned with the message "I'm Indian and I vote."

That simple statement belies a complex heritage that spans no fewer than four continents. But for the sake of convenience, the Seattle mother of two was willing to let brevity trump accuracy.

Her 13-year-old son, however, wasn't.

"Where do I get a button that says, 'I'm Cuban, French, Sicilian, Native American, African-American, Irish, Mexican, Hungarian and Scottish ... and I vote?'" Rector's son Chai asked her.

As Barack Obama's profile soared, she said, so too did her sons' eagerness to embrace and identify with every piece of the racial whole they inherited from both of their parents.

"[Chai] feels as if his peers treat him differently because the most powerful person in the world is a person of color," Rector told

But Obama's victory isn't significant only because it provides a new generation of mixed race Americans with a powerful role model and a relatable story of growing up with multiple loyalties.

His example, as a man with both black and white parents, gives a country, too comfortable with a rigid approach to race, a new opportunity to examine the outdated color lines and social pressures that define, in many ways, all of its people.

"I think it's time for the conversation to open in this country," Rector said. "Things aren't just black and white; there's gray in that middle ground and it's very fruitful. For us to have a president who is biracial and multicultural, it's going to bring to light for many people a deeper understanding of race."

Why 'Black' and Not 'Biracial'?

On election night, when it became clear that Obama had secured more than enough votes to win the presidency, headline after headline celebrated the election of the country's first black commander in chief. Photograph upon photograph captured the poignant reactions of the country's highest-profile black leaders.

Given America's history of slavery and segregation, it is unquestionable that his victory is particularly profound for the millions of Americans of African descent.

But to many people who study race -- from ivory tower academics to front-line psychologists and grass-roots organizers -- Obama's victory is an indicator of racial progress that also raises a number of crucial questions.

Why, they ask, do we continue to place someone in one racial category when his identity clearly defies categorization? Why do we say that racial barriers fell with Obama's victory but then continue to use language that affirms those same barriers, however indirectly?

"Even when we have this man who we see in photographs the night of the election with his white grandparents, we still try to pigeonhole him as being black," said Donna Jackson Nakazawa, an Annapolis, Md., author and lecturer on educational issues that affect multiracial youth. "What's interesting is that we still say he's a black president, regardless of the fact that it could not be more obvious that he's a mixed-race president."

Like most experts on multiracial identity, Nakazawa agreed that identity is fluid. In the course of a day, a mixed-race person may switch between "black," "white," "biracial" or, as golfer Tiger Woods has shown us, "Cablinasion."

Depending on the occasion, Obama emphasizes his family in Kenya, his mother and grandparents from Kansas, his youth in Hawaii, his experience in Indonesia and the many other associations that make up his identity. And this, experts say, is undeniably his right.

But, they continue, the reason society consistently chooses one label over another is a different matter.

For Nakazawa, the national pastime of classifying people into one of five "flavors" -- black, white, Asian, Native American and Hispanic -- suggests that we haven't adequately absorbed scientific data showing that these categories are social constructions and biologically artificial.

Geneticists, she pointed out, have shown that two people of the same race are about as different from each other as two people from any two different racial groups.

And in 1997, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which determines federal standards for the reporting of racial and ethnic statistics, revised its definitions. It acknowledged that race data reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and "do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria."

But that official revision seems to have made little impact on the more stubborn vernacular that governs daily life.

'Mutts Like Me'

Throughout Obama's campaign, Shelby Steele, a prolific author and race relations scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, reflected on what it means to revert to old language when new social arrangements are clearly afoot.

"We want to congratulate ourselves on having made so much racial progress," said Steele, who is himself a child of black and white parents. "But have we made so much that we can understand and empathize with this biracial man and the special pressures that he had to live under and the ways he had to betray himself to accommodate those pressures?"

What makes this question all the more relevant is that Obama himself has historically been so forthcoming about his mixed race experience. In his first book, "Dreams of My Father," he wrote at length about his own "fitful inner struggle" in negotiating his many cultural and racial obligations.

During the campaign itself, when his every word was parsed daily by the media and countless pollsters, it was not surprising that he saved the stump for the significant economic and international issues facing the country.

Only on a few occasions did he take the race issue head on, most notably earlier this year, in Philadelphia, when his former pastor's sermons began to cast a curious shadow over the campaign.

But now that the campaign has ended and he can let down his guard a little, he has given some indication that he might be more candid about his identity.

In his first news conference as president-elect last week, Obama offered three little words that, for many people, revealed a way of approaching race that the White House had never seen before.

In describing to the press corps the kind of puppy his family might bring home, he said, in an offhanded kind of way, that many shelter dogs are "mutts like me."

Although the word "mutt" can stir tender memories for individuals and families who also see themselves as composites, for many people who ponder race -- either personally or professionally -- Obama's remark was a sign of positive things to come.

Steele, who had actually hoped for more honesty from Obama's Philadelphia speech, thought his "mutt" reference was healthy.

"I loved the joke he told," Steele told "It is a sign that he is more comfortable in his own skin. That relaxes everybody."

Jen Chau, founder of the mixed-race advocacy group Swirl Inc., said that although she doesn't necessarily promote using the term, the comment implied an ease in talking about race that people may come to expect from him.

In the past few months, she said, her organization has expanded from six chapters to 10 chapters nationwide. Fueled by Obama's visibility, group membership has grown to at least 1,500 people, she estimated.

"A mixed race person prompts a lot of debate because, as a country, we're still not accepting a mixed race as a whole identity," Chau said. "The conversation and the language we use as a country are stagnant."

But, she pointed out, sheer numbers will soon push people to revisit inelastic ways of thinking about race.

The Census Bureau estimates that by 2042, the white majority in the United States will be outnumbered by Americans of other races. And of the nearly 7 million people who self-identified as of two or more races in the 2000 census, 41 percent were younger than 18. Census data also indicate that the number of interracial marriages has steadily climbed since the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

Shining a Floodlight

As older generations adjust, in fits and starts, to new ways of group identification, educational experts say Obama's story is helping younger Americans understand race socialization like never before.

"Barack Obama is shining a floodlight on the mixed-race experience so I can go into a middle school and have an effective conversation," said Louie Gong, president-elect of the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle mixed-race advocacy organization. "Without that touchstone ... we're relegated to starting at the very basics."

Daily exposure to Obama has cultivated a higher level of sophistication about race among younger and lower-income audiences of all races, Gong said.

But he also cautioned that he believes the role that "white privilege" played in Obama's ascension has not been sufficiently addressed.

"Obama has benefited from white privilege -- a measure of economic privilege that we cannot generalize to a larger black population, and a measure of cultural privilege, in terms of understanding the social systems on which the country runs," he explained.

To describe Obama only as a "black president" and not unpack the deeper layers of ethnicity, culture and group belonging convey a false reality, Gong said.

Anticipating the Dialogue to Come

Regardless of how quickly or easily the general public fine-tunes the lenses it uses to perceive other people, for interracial families across the country, Obama's victory is generating hope about the dialogues to come.

Dionne Ford, 39, a black woman married to a white man, said that Obama's visibility has already changed the course of conversations in her own interracial home in northern New Jersey.

Because of the fairness of her skin, Ford's 8-year-old daughter chose to call herself white. But as Ford talked about Obama with her daughter and pointed out that he was biracial like her, she began to call herself biracial.

"She took pride that in some ways she was the same as this man who had been chosen as the Democratic choice for president," Ford said.

She looks forward to the overdue candid conversations about race that Obama's rise foreshadows -- and has already sparked -- but also knows that the truth can sometimes sting.

When Ford heard of Obama's "mutts like me" remark, she said that, at first, she was startled. "It felt like a slap in the face," she said.

But the more she thought about it, she became heartened that someone was finally speaking about himself with honesty.

"We can finally start to get honest about how we perceive ourselves and other people," she said. "You get to discover people by what they call themselves."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events