Barack Obama is black -- he just isn't "black." And if his candidacy helps take the quotation marks off race in America, it's a good thing.
I am a mixed-race person, not a "mixed-race person."
What's the difference? People whose race or ethnicity defines their identity, or at least makes up a major part of it, are what I think of as quotation-mark people. They are not only mixed-race, they are "mixed-race." Those whose race or ethnicity has little or nothing to do with their identity, with their sense of themselves, are non-quotation-mark people. They may recognize themselves as black or Latino or Asian, be whatever race or ethnicity they are to the core, and proudly affirm they are such, but they aren't "black" or "Latino" or "Asian."
And if that's the case, they're lucky. Because who wants to go around carrying the burden of being "Asian" or "black" all the time? It's a burden because it's a phantom, an abstract concept, that nonetheless weighs you down. To feel "Asian," for me, would be to embrace an entirely political definition of myself, one simultaneously empty and all-encompassing. I would become a caricature of myself, a spokesman for a "myself" entirely constructed by others. Having no racial self-identification is a utopian state because it allows you to escape this malignant mirror. In America, the white majority is fortunate to enjoy this. But so are many minorities.
Barack Obama simply happens to represent a very public manifestation of this non-quotation-mark approach to race. There are many, many other African-American blacks who exemplify the same approach. Dickerson argues that Obama is not black because he is not the descendant of African slaves. But I would argue that blackness -- or, more accurately, "blackness" -- is determined not by whether one is descended from slaves, but the degree to which one sees one's identity as determined by one's race. Clearly, the fact that Obama's father was African, not American, plays a role in his well-known lack of "blackness," as does the fact that his mother is white. And yet, I believe that none of this is determinative. Someone of Obama's background could be "black" -- and a Ronald Washington from Detroit might not be "black" at all. It depends on how they see themselves; if others see them differently, that's their problem.
Read the full opinion piece here, it's one of the best reads I've seen in a long time on racial identity, racial politics, and how we identify.