Why is Obama regarded black and not white?

By Vision Reporter

MOST parties will have a spoiler or two, and I am afraid I just may prove one for the biggest party of all. For, let’s ask ourselves, why are we (mostly) lauding Barack Obama?

By David Sseppuuya

MOST parties will have a spoiler or two, and I am afraid I just may prove one for the biggest party of all. For, let’s ask ourselves, why are we (mostly) lauding Barack Obama?

Across the vast greatness of America, to Alego-Kogelo in deep Luoland via the leafy suburbs and the slums of Kampala, we are all Obamarites, celebrating the ascension to highest political office of the first ‘black’ to lead the world’s sole superpower.

Barrack Obama has made his name not so much because both Barack and Obama are strange in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon world, not because he is skinny, in the words of the muscle-bound California Governor Arnold Schwarznegger, and certainly not because of his relative youth, at 47 years.

It is because of his complexion, or rather perceived racial qualities, and what ultimately colours our appreciation of the US of America’s presumptive President.

But why is he black and not white? I see his maternal grandparents, the Dunhams, as white as any mzungu would be.

His late mother was as lily white as his father, a Luo (or Jaluo, as we call them in Uganda), was dark. So why exalt one ‘colour’ over the other, when their son was as much of one racial heritage as the other? Half-half, so to speak?

Could it be because America basically groups its peoples as, well, Americans for those of European descent, and black (descendants of slaves), natives (previously called Indian ‘Injuns’ in spite of never having set genetic foot on the Indian sub-continent), Asians, or Hispanics (descended from Spanish influence in Latin America)?

Because European descent — English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, Slav, Dutch, French, Scandinavian — has been in the majority since America was opened up to the old world, other ancestry is subconsciously looked at a bit as the outsider.

So why is Obama, and for that matter new Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, classified as ‘black’ and not ‘white’, given the perfect divide in their respective families?

And why is Tiger Woods, the man Obama is replacing as the most popular man of ‘colour’ regularly referred to as black, when his skin tone tends more to brown, unsurprisingly given his mother’s Asian heritage in Thailand?

Well, local perspectives may provide the answer. In Britain, anyone who is not pure white, especially if they have African blood in them, is referred to as having a “brush of tar”, tar being the blackest derivative of oil by-products.

A ‘brush of tar’ will automatically make you ‘black’ in your racial heritage, even though you are as fair-skinned as the footballer Rio Ferdinand.

If he indeed makes his retirement home in Uganda, where he has bought property, Rio Ferdinand is unlikely to be referred to as ‘the black’ former captain of England on the streets of Kampala. Chances are that he will be labelled a ‘mzungu’, which in our cultural understanding means ‘white’.

For that is how many first and second generation Ugandans from the families of the Barlows, the Stokes, the Blicks, the Coutinhos, the Anokkbongos, and the Corrys, have been called. These Ugandan families, many of whose descendants are active in contemporary Kampala’s social, professional and political life, have an ancestor of European descent who married into our local clans.

As a lad growing up in the frontline anti-apartheid excitement that Uganda was in the 1970s and 1980s, with our passports intriguingly stamped “eligible for all countries except South Africa”, I rather enjoyed hearing my Dad refer to the ‘Coloureds”.

It sounded so romantic, even sweet, to the extent that I could hardly wait to behold Coloureds with my own eyes.

When I finally did, in the immediate post-apartheid South Africa of 1997, I discovered that these people of mixed African and European parentage are what are called ‘Omukyotala’ in Luganda, ‘Chotara’ in East African coastal parlance, and ‘mulatto’ on the beaches of Brazil.

So is Obama the first Chotara President of the US, or the first mulatto Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest armed forces?

Could he be the first ‘black’ man to occupy the Oval Office, or the 44th ‘mzungu’ to enter the White House as chief tenant? Take your pick, if it really matters.

The writer is a publishing and
media consultant

Why is Obama regarded black and not white?