I am well aware this is an extremely sensitive and controversial subject and may upset and offend some readers, but here goes anyway.
East Indian people are very race- and skin-color conscious. It's a trait that is permanently embedded into our ancient DNA. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2007-08 (and after he won the election), my Indian friends, acquaintances and relatives made some of the following comments about him: “He has light skin and fine features, he's not really black”; “He talks very well, not like most black people”; “The Democrats chose him because he's articulate, went to Harvard and seems nice and civilized”; “He probably wouldn't suffer any racial problems, nor rejection, in India”; “Why on earth did he marry her [Michelle]?”; “I wouldn't be afraid of him if I saw him walking down the street”; “If he had straight hair, he'd almost look Indian.” The list of far more inflammatory remarks goes on, but I'd be too embarrassed to repeat them here.
Keeping in mind that many Indian people in Western societies, particularly the older generation, are extremely prejudiced against, and fearful of, black men, these statements indicated that they (we) generally do not consider Obama to be “black.”
Consequently, he was viewed as an “acceptable” candidate; indeed, Indian Americans overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
I am certain many white Americans felt the same away about Obama. Even if they otherwise harbor no strongly racist views against black people, they nonetheless evaluated Obama as a “respectable, articulate” black man, hence, electable. Even some of Obama's fellow (white) Democrats, including senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Joe Biden of Delaware (who, bizarrely, was later chosen as Obama's running mate) made some highly controversial (and quite hilarious) statements about Obama.
Specifically, while challenging Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden told the New York Observer: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.” Biden was apparently trying to “compliment” Obama.
Similarly, according to reports, Reid once described Obama as a “light-skinned African American with no negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Yes, Reid actually used the word negro, although he later apologized for it.
So, if powerful, high-profile Democratic lawmakers like Reid and Biden -- who, of course, both strongly support Obama -- could openly spew such backhanded compliments (insults, actually), one can only imagine what ordinary white people said privately about the president.
I know that under America's archaic racial customs and fractious history, anyone with “one drop” of black African blood is categorized as black. I'm also very aware that the majority of “black” Americans are actually mixed with European and American-Indian ancestry.
Even so, in the “real world,” if one does not “look” black, then one is not really regarded as black.
I thought about all this when I watched Obama on television Friday evening commenting on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watchman who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, sparking nationwide outrage and protests.
In an unusually frank and candid (and apparently spontaneous) speech, Obama compared himself to Trayvon (“that's me 35 years ago”) and detailed the daily humiliations young black men face in social interactions with other races -- e.g., women clutching their purses, people locking their car doors, hate-filled stares.
But then Obama claimed that such incidents have happened to him as well. This is where he lost me. I simply did not believe him. Obama should know better than anyone how his life and career trajectory differs radically from the overwhelming majority of African-American men and women.
He was born to a black Kenyan father, who abandoned him, and a white, Irish-American mother. He was subsequently raised by his mother and maternal grandparents and lived in Hawaii, and even Indonesia, not exactly centers of black culture. Then, later in life, he attended two of the most elite universities on the planet, Columbia and Harvard.
I realize that black America is very diverse, complex and multifaceted, but Obama's background is light-years removed from the lives of most African Americans. As in India, a kind of caste system based on skin color and physical appearance has existed within black America for decades -- a direct result of the complex (and often violent) relationships between black slaves and white masters in the Old South.
Although his father was African, not American, Obama is merely the latest in a long line of black leaders who were actually of mixed race, stretching back to Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and later including Adam Clayton Powell, Thurgood Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Malcolm X and many others. Prominent entertainers and athletes like Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Dandridge, Jason Kidd, Derek Jeter and Halle Berry also form part of this complex tale.
Most of the latter enjoyed privileges (education, housing, etc.) beyond the scope of the darker-skinned blacks at the bottom of this hierarchy. Historical and anecdotal accounts abound detailing acts of prejudice and discrimination practiced by lighter-skinned blacks against the darker-skinned among them (again, somewhat similar to what has happened historically in India).
Consider that while Obama has been elected president twice, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton failed miserably to get anywhere near the White House (draw your own conclusions).
On a personal note, many years ago I worked in an office with a beautiful young woman with an olive complexion, fine features, and long, straight dark brown hair. When I first laid eyes on her, in my ignorance, I assumed she was Hispanic, or perhaps an American Indian, or even Sicilian. I was surprised to learn she was of mixed-race descent (black father, white mother, just like Obama).
From a purely superficial, visual perspective, there was nothing “black” about her.
Strangely, she identified as black, despite the fact that she grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburban neighborhood and seemed to have mostly white friends. I ascertained that her embrace of “black identity” was dictated solely by politics, not by culture or real-life-experiences.
She might be viewed as a kind of female version of Obama (indeed, had she gone into politics, “liberals” like Biden and Reid no doubt would have praised her for being a “clean” and “articulate” African American.)
However, unlike Obama, she was honest enough to admit that since she was not readily identifiable as black, she did not suffer the kind of daily indignities endured by many other black people.
If Obama was telling the truth when he said he was “racially profiled” during his youth, it was likely no worse than incidents I experienced myself in the weeks and months following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. But I understood the extraordinary atmosphere of that time and it didn't bother me at all. Granted, no one came after me with a gun and shot me in cold blood, but that never happened to Obama either.
As for racial profiling, that is inevitable in any multiracial, polyglot society. And it doesn't necessarily have to be linked to race and ethnicity; white youths dressed like punks in leather jackets and spiky hair can trigger feelings of fear and/or disgust from some people. I used to know a big, muscular, shaven-headed, tattooed Southern white redneck whose very presence in stores, bars and restaurants sparked immediate anxiety (although he was as gentle as a lamb).
Thus, profiling is sometimes based on physical appearance, regardless of race or skin color. Everyone does it at one time or another. And since it is based on deeply ingrained cultural values and perceptions, it simply cannot be legislated out of existence.
As for Obama, his life experiences and station in life are a million miles away from those like the tragic young Trayvon Martin and, no, Obama was not Trayvon 35 years ago.