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Reshuffling the race cards

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By now everybody on planet earth, and all the little green men monitoring planet earth from their flying saucers in low earth orbit, know that Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic Party nomination.

Given the current political and economic climate in the U.S., the Geiger counter-shattering radioactivity of the Republican Party, and Senator John McCain’s advanced age and inconsistency (see YouTube), it’s also a virtual certainty that Obama will be elected the next leader of the free world. This is significant for so many reasons, not the least of which is Obama’s race.

If you haven’t noticed, Barack Obama is not a white man. He’s still a man, which comes as a blow to many Hillary Clinton supporters who hoped this would be the year that the U.S. would finally elect a female president, but his candidacy still breaks new ground for America. And Canada. And the U.K. And dozens of other countries where white men hold power.

Obama’s race would be of small distinction if he were running for any other job, but race and religion are still contentious issues in the U.S. There are people that won’t vote for Obama simply because of the colour of his skin, or because his middle name is Hussein and his last name rhymes with “Osama” (if you buy into the whole “secret Muslim” conspiracy theory, which would make more sense if Obama pretended to be “John Smith”). And then again, there are a huge number of people who will vote for Obama anyway, which suggests that the country is not as racially divided as we’ve been led to believe, and mature enough to look past a funny sounding name.

But while black Americans deserve to celebrate the ascension of the first black president, it’s really only a half-truth in Obama’s case. To be accurate, Obama is half-black and half-white, 50-50, and the proper name for someone of mixed race is biracial or mulatto (the debate’s still out on whether the term “mulatto” is racist). Barack Obama is a biracial candidate, although you won’t hear that word used very often during the campaign.

That’s no reason for black Americans to stop celebrating, a half black president is still a 100 per cent improvement over past administrations. But it’s almost more significant that Obama is a person of mixed race. To my mind that makes race, often the most divisive measurement of human beings, completely irrelevant — white Americans have just as much claim to Obama as black Americans, so at the end of the day he can only really be judged by the content of his character.

Obama himself said as much when he gave his historic speech on race back in March, acknowledging the racial divisions that still exist in the west while also suggesting that it’s time for people to move on.

In fact, while some cynical people may want to promote Obama as a candidate who bridges the race divide, I’d rather see his nomination as the exact moment that race no longer mattered in America. That’s because for Obama, race really stopped mattering 47 years ago when his parents — a black man and a white woman — decided that it didn’t matter to them. I think that’s a far better message than the triumph of a black candidate over a white candidate in a divided country.

Why do we even feel the need to lump people into one category or another? And I’m blaming the media here, because we’re the worst offenders when it comes to oversimplifying the truth.

When Tiger Woods became the first black golfer to win the Masters in 1997, most sports reporters overlooked the fact that he is also half Filipino, and that it was a victory for the Filipino community as well.

When Halle Berry became the first woman of African-American descent to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, many reporters missed the fact that she’s half white, the product of supreme tolerance rather than racial division.

Mariah Carey is of mixed Irish, Venezuelan and black descent, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to label her as one race or another through her whole career. Beyonce Knowles is the product of two mixed race parents, but still got in trouble playing “white” in Dreamgirls.

Historically, people of mixed race have almost had it worse than people of one race, because there are bigots on both sides that believe races shouldn’t mix. Just look at how the Métis were treated in Canada, for example, or mixed race citizens in South Africa during the days of apartheid.

At this point in history, mixed race people shouldn’t be forced to pick sides or accept partial labels for their protection, or to make things easier on reporters.

No doubt as a white male, I’m missing something here — I’ve never really been a member of a minority, although given the shifting demographics in Canada that’s something that will likely change in my lifetime.

On one hand it does seem kind of petty to deny the black community a chance to celebrate an important psychological victory because Obama is half white. On the other hand it goes against Barack’s own goal of making race irrelevant to label him as a black candidate. Especially at a time when biracial relationships are more common and more widely accepted than ever.

I’m more interested in Barack’s stand on the Iraq war, global warming, the economy, and free trade than I am in the colour of his skin. Given the polls I think most Americans feel the same way, but you’ll never see that reflected in the media.

I wonder what the little green men make of that.