Black cat, white cat, it’s who wins the race

“After having many talks with my mother about the issue, she reinforced what she had always taught me. She said that even though you are half-black and half-white, you will be discriminated against in this country as a black person...” – Halle Berry

Simplification, like stereotyping, is the handmaiden of racism. Thus the US media is infecting the globe with a world of black and white.

One could be cynical and suggest that describing brown, mixed-race people as black makes it easier to claim that discrimination against actual black people, those with largely black African physiological characteristics, is less than it actually is.

But let us be charitable and assume that it is well-intentioned. In which case one must ask what does it say about a society apparently unwilling to describe race in actual terms? Can there be much prospect for the melting-pot while the New York Times, not to mention the US government itself, insists on classifying people into racial groups in which they do not fit?

The latest evidence of the media’s unwillingness to recognize racial diversity is the case of a young British racing car driver who gained almost instant fame in the racing world last weekend, which should not have been for the color of his skin. Finishing third in Melbourne, the 22-year-old became the first Formula One rookie since 1996 to appear on the winner’s podium. His name is Lewis Hamilton and he is of mixed racial parentage and light brown skin color, with features which cannot readily be categorized. Yet various media, not least that US standard of correctness, the Associated Press, and most of the media in Australia insisted on describing him as the “first black” Formula One driver.

Bloomberg called Hamilton “Formula One's first black driver, (who) finished third on his race debut in Australia to underline his potential and rebuff doubters who said he was promoted too soon.”

Quite clearly Hamilton is no more or less black or white than Halle Berry, who was acclaimed not long ago as the first “black” woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. This is not merely inaccurate as a physical description. It must be viewed with some puzzlement, to say the least, by her mother who is a very white person from England.

The notion that anyone who has some black African blood is therefore “black” is perhaps the most evident sign of how deeply rooted racism remains in the US and Australia, including in the pages of supposedly liberal newspapers. (The British media has, to its rare credit, mostly chosen to adopt Hamilton as a new sporting hero without always defining him in racial terms).

The black/white categorization in the US remains as entrenched as ever despite the best efforts of Tiger Woods to focus attention not on his “black” identity but on the diversity of his background. Woods’ refusal to be thus classified was not only correct, to have done otherwise would have been to deny the identity of his mother, a Thai with part Chinese ancestry.

Given how much they have suffered, it is understandable that African-Americans would want to claim Woods, and even Halle Berry, as one of their own. But in the longer run, it must be against the interests of African-Americans above all to see the world divided so sharply into black and white. Likewise, whites need to recognize more clearly their contribution to the gene pool of those now classified as African-Americans.

Unhappily these issues are surfacing in the context of Barack Obama’s bid for the US presidential nomination. Obama has a problem. He is part African — from Kenya, not African-American. That he is half white, his mother being from a family that once owned slaves, probably would not matter. He would still be “black”, but for the fact that he clearly knows he must appeal to all races.

So instead of being a promising candidate who happens not to be lily-white, the fact that he is not easily categorized, which should be a plus, becomes a negative. Such are the consequences of black and white headlines.

Despite the integration of all manner of people from all over Europe and even parts of Asia with different languages, religions and cultures, the US remains hung up on this black and white divide. For sure there are African-American cultural characteristics which are identifiable. But that is a different issue from skin color.

The US racial tragedy, with its slaving origins, unfortunately has cast a shadow elsewhere. The British seem to have borrowed some of the “black” obsession. Though interracial marriage in the UK is more common than in the US, despite the relatively recent arrival of non-whites, mixed-race part-Africans are also often described as black. Children of mixed Asian and European parentage on the other hand mostly escape categorization.

Meanwhile in some countries in Asia there is a desire deny the realities of their own racial mixing. Malaysia is a case in point. The Malay-led government clutches at every chance to enhance “Malay rather than Malaysian” identity, which is then confused with Muslim, though Malays are only about 50% of the population. A recent attempt to ban the use of “pan-Asian” models in advertising was a classic of institutional racism.

It not only contradicted the pluralism which is supposed to be a major part of the nation’s strength, it seemed to want to cover up the mixed origins of its prime ministers – Tunku Abdul Rahman was part Thai, Hussein Onn was half Turkish and Mahathir Mohamad half Indian. Alas, Malaysian politics has long been based on emphasizing racial divides rather than common national interests. But at least mixed-background people in Malaysia usually have the opportunity to decide to which ethnic/linguistic/religious group they belong to, in the US they have no choice.

Whatever she herself feels about it, or her mother, Halle Berry is black. And that’s it.