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The Impact of Barack Obama's Mixed Heritage

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Barack Obama made history in 2008 when he became the first man of African ancestry elected U.S. president. During his time in office, Obama's racially mixed heritage has had both pros and cons. On one hand, it has led to wider discussions of biracial identity and to others exploring their roots. On the other, being "the first black president" has opened Obama up to various racist attacks--from racist caricatures to claims that he secretly practices Islam, wasn't born in the U.S. and isn't authentically black. Despite such attacks, the fact that a biracial man won the presidency marks a race relations turning point. 

1. Barack Obama's Irish Heritage

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When President Obama visited Ireland in May 2011, he said that he'd come home. For a man regarded as "the first black president" and who self identifies as African-American, such a statement was remarkable. It marked one of the few times the president unequivocally embraced his European heritage. Obama's enthusiasm about his Irish roots may very well have political benefits. According to biographer Stephen MacDonogh, the move will help Obama connect with voters who've proven elusive--working class whites. Just before Obama left for Ireland, he released his long-form birth certificate to prove that he was born in the U.S. As the public learns more about his European heritage, it becomes more difficult to paint Obama as an exotic outsider. 

2. Racially Motivated Political Attacks Against Barack Obama

Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr.com

Not all Americans welcomed the election of a biracial black man as president. Some of Obama's opponents have zeroed in on his heritage to portray him as a perpetual outsider. Although Obama grew up mostly with his white grandparents in Hawaii, his political foes fixate on his father's Kenyan background to suggest that the president was born outside of the U.S. The idea that the president is "other" has also led to his rivals publicly doubting that he's a Christian. At times, Obama has even been accused of being anti-white, despite the fact that he's biracial. These attacks on the president counter the idea that his election signals the beginning of a post-racial era. Rather, they reveal how much progress needs to be made in race relations.

3. Myths About Multiracial People, Including Barack Obama

Paul Heaberlin/Flickr.com

When Barack Obama was elected president, his racially mixed heritage inevitably led to a public dialogue about biracial identity. Although Obama is the most famous biracial person on the planet, he's certainly far from the first. Many discussions about biracial people in the U.S. portray them as if they're novelties, though. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first documented "mulatto" in the nation was born back in 1620, after all. Obama also sparked debate about biracial identity when he solely identified as African-American on the census. This led to accusations that he bought into the one-drop rule. But many mixed people identify solely as black because they believe that the African-American experience includes being biracial.

4. Dreams From My Father and Other Books About Cultural Identity

Three Rivers Press

Rumors about President Obama's birthplace and upbringing are widespread, but those seeking to know the truth need turn no further than his memoir, Dreams From My Father. The book chronicles Obama's childhood years in Hawaii and Indonesia, his college years at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York, and his years as a community organizer on Chicago's Southside. The book concludes with a sojourn to his father's birthplace--Kenya. Dreams From My Father puts to bed much of the fiction circulating about the president. It chronicles, for example, his conversion to Christianity, contrary to the Muslim rumors. It also explores how he came to terms with being biracial, despite growing up without his black father. 

5. Obama Fried Chicken and Other Racist Branding of Food

For years, all one had to do to see stereotypical images of minority groups was to open their kitchen cabinets. Food manufacturers long used stereotypes to brand their products, making the likes of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Frito Bandito household names. As Barack Obama's popularity as a politican grew, foes and supporters alike tried to capitalize on his image by presenting it in stereotypical form in food advertising. This led to New Yorkers naming an eatery Obama Fried Chicken and Republicans passing out packages of Obama Waffles, featuring an image of the president with exaggerated facial traits. Rather than use Obama's biracial heritage to inspire, some have used it to disseminate images of him in line with the country's racist past.

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