It's taken for granted the description of Barack Obama as our country's first black president. Something about this designation has always troubled me. I wonder whether the president's white mother, and his white grandparents who helped raise him, would have considered the label a slight to their roles in his life. Sure, much of the reasoning behind celebrating the "first black president" label is a country looking to redeem itself for its history of injustice against blacks. But the underlying mindset of "if you're not fully white, you're black" is the same that fueled the Jim Crow-era "one-drop rule", whereby any Americans who had any trace of non-white ancestry were deemed "colored" and were legally discriminated against.
This is just one example where our country can even innocuously display an awkward handling of race. Take the term "African-American" itself, often used as a well-intentioned substitute for "black", regardless of whether the American being described is generations removed from Africa and despite the fact that non-recent-immigrant white Americans are never classified as "German-American" or "British-American". (Lindsey Lohan's Mean Girls character, on the other hand, is actually African-American.)
One of my most striking takeaways from recently spending a year living and working in South America was people’s comfort within their own skins and how that manifested itself in their descriptions of one another. My friends and co-workers would refer to each other as flaquita ("skinny"), gordo ("fat"), moreno (used often for me: "dark-skinned"), or chinita (for girls with narrow eyes), with no insult intended or taken. Whereas here in the U.S. I think that we sometimes cultivate an insecurity about our physical characteristics, everyone in rural Perú1 was refreshingly matter-of-fact about that which was plainly evident.
A couple weeks ago, a robust debate sprung up on some corners of the Internet spurred by examples of people donning "blackface" as part of their Halloween costumes, as did entertainer Julianne Hough in her portrayal of the black character "Crazy Eyes" from Orange is the New Black. This is a lightning rod of an issue, and understandably so, given the unfortunate chapter of American history where white entertainers painted their faces to imitate blacks and often delivered hammed-up, exaggerated performances meant to portray blacks as naive, buffoonish, or imbecilic. Yet even today, in examples where clearly no malice is intended, American society shows its inability to turn the page on this chapter of its troubled history. We are left with the strange distinction whereby it is acceptable to imitate a person's hair color and style, clothing, accessories, accent, mannerisms, facial expressions, and every other aspect of appearance -- but skin color is verboten (even when portraying a specific person/character as opposed to a generic racial stereotype).
Critics of Ms. Hough, like those who protested SNL actress Nasim Pedrad's recent "brownface" portrayal of Aziz Ansari (not to mention fellow SNL actor Fred Armisen's long-running portrayal of President Obama), may be well-intentioned but their charges of racism are unfounded here and only serve to forestall our society reaching the point where it can comfortably acknowledge that racial differences as just a physical characteristic exist.
Meanwhile, that outrage would be better channeled toward addressing very real instances of racism that have actual consequences: an inexplicable drug sentencing disparity of 18:1 between possession of crack (more commonly associated with black drug users) versus powder cocaine (associated with whites)2; pervasive police discrimination against minorities, such as NYC's "Stop and Frisk" program, which 88% of the time stops an innocent person and 83% of the time a black or Hispanic; even the paucity of multi-racial families depicted in popular media -- recall the surprising controversy generated by an unremarkable depiction of a bi-racial family in the Cheerios "Just Checking" ad earlier this year. Consider that -- a cereal commercial, of all things, serves as a model for Americans in the 21st century melting pot, showing that race doesn't matter a whit.
1. That's not to suggest that Peru is a unique racial utopia -- because there, too, political and economic power are dominated by a lighter-skinned elite and one would be hard-pressed to find dark-skinned TV stars or models. Furthermore, as an American of Indian descent, I've experienced the cognitive dissonance of my immigrant father talking recently, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address, about how moving the speech was, and yet seeing him and his brothers in India compete over who has "fairer" (lighter) skin. So the U.S. is far from being alone in figuring out that race is a meaningless concept.
2. President Obama's passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 reduced the sentencing disparity from its previously incomprehensible 100:1 ratio; nonetheless, the majority of drug offenders are sentenced at the state level, not federal, and are not directly affected by this reduction.