What Happens When Your Race Is Not Your Race
In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton “the first Black president”, saying, “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”. Noting that Clinton’s sex life was scrutinized more than his career accomplishments, Morrison compared this to the stereotyping and double standards that blacks typically endure.
If Bill Clinton claimed he was black, who could stop him from doing so? Would he lose his black card? Would it be invalidated? Would we change the password for being black and not tell him? Are we going to change up handshakes? What exactly would stop him from doing so? The answer is absolutely nothing other than a fear of perception by society.
In a 2014 interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Clinton said in response to being called the first black President:
I was incredibly fortunate that I was born in a little town in Arkansas and raised by my grandparents largely and my great-uncle and -aunt when my widowed mother went off to become a nurse. And my grandparents were poor white Southerners, who as a class were among the most racially prejudiced people in the South, and they weren’t. My granddad ran a country store and the vast majority of his customers were African-American.
So, I was raised in a different way — at home in the church, at home and the culture. And it was such a gift to me that I grew up free of that and I deserve no credit for it whatsoever, it was the way I was raised. And so, I love being called the first black president, but Barack Obama really is, he deserves it.
Cue President Obama. He grew up in Hawaii and went to an exclusive private school. He was raised by his white mother and grandmother. His father, who was a black African, left he and his mother when Obama was very young, and by his own admission was not much of a factor in his life. Culturally, does one take the race of their mother, father, both? It’s a choice, because there was nothing culturally or traditionally “black” about President Obama’s upbringing.
So black American novelist, editor, and professor who won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved and the Nobel Prize in 1993, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and serves as Professor Emeritus at Princeton University said the very white Bill Clinton was indeed black. Meanwhile, the very biracial Barack Obama, raised by his white mother and grandmother in almost exclusively a “white” world in Hawaii, chooses to be black even though his black father had little to no influence or presence in his life. Race is nothing but a choice. You, me, no one can tell someone they aren’t what they say they are. To think that you can assumes that society has power over individuals identities and bodies. It doesn’t and neither do you.