Clearly Black Person

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In response to a question a couple days ago about whether he expects to be Swift-Boated, presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama said the following:
I have no doubt there will be some of that — trying to make me into this foreign, odd, clearly black person and to scare people," he said. "When people try to Swift Boat you, you have to respond forcefully, you have to respond immediately and you have to respond truthfully. ... We are prepared for whatever they will throw at us.
I know what I think he means by "clearly black person", and I know what I think he's trying to say. I'm curious what other people think, though. Can you paraphrase what you think he's saying? I'm not so interested at this point in whether this is accurate, appropriate, insulting, or offensive. (If what he's saying is what I think he's saying, it's possible that it's all four.) I'm simply curious what people think he means. What exactly was he trying to say?


Having been asked about Swift Boating, he answered from the perspective of groups likely to try it. Among these are people who think that being black is enough to disqualify someone from holding office. Their target audience would be those whites who, as they see it, are only considering voting for Obama because he acts like them. Clarifying his blackness would not be a mere matter of pointing out his race but of trying to apply a litany of negative stereotypes. Their intended message: He looks black because he is black.

So what does "clearly black" mean if it doesn't just mean black? I think he must mean something more than he would have meant if he'd said just "black" and not "clearly black".

I don't have a category for the black I think he's talking about but its like when OJ Simpson's picture showed up in the paper as darker, deeper shadows under the eyes, a menace II society. Now, I'm not saying as a murderer but as a threat to the way "normal" society functions: a very present danger to change.

His bit saying "clearly black" makes it a bit insulting I think because that visual is not something clearly black it's something that is, I don't even know: demonized black? But used as "clearly black" it seems to create this pejorative category where the lighter shades of black are safer, non-alien types but the dark shades are the threat.

So, I think what he's trying to say is that the attacks will come and they will try to put him in a threatening category: when the attack comes it's ultimate foundation is demonizing his race. But he did a bad job at it.

No, I think clearly black and what scares people aren't exactly the same. I think he's listing four characteristics: foreign, odd, clearly black, and scary. It's probably true that the first three contribute toward the fourth, but I think being clearly black isn't the same thing as what scares people, although I think he has in mind that it contributes toward it. I don't think it has to do with how dark he is, either. But I do think you're right that the attacks he expects will demonize him in terms of putting into the scary black person category, and I do think he did a bad job explaining that.

There's something else that I think he means by "clearly black", and I'm curious to see if anyone else comes up with it.

In the context of foreign, odd, and scary, I'd say that "clearly black" is meant to indicate that he is not only of a different race and foreign, but that he embraces his foreignness and has no wish to assimilate. Thus, to the degree that he is appealing to whites, it is because he is an undercover agent of sorts whose true alliance is with the blacks.

This would qualify as a swift-boat as it has no foundation in reality: Obama is universally described as charismatic, not odd or scary. He's from Hawaii and spent most of his life in the states, so he's not a foreigner. The only thing that might be valid is "clearly back" depending on what is meant by that.

Is it accurate and/or appropriate? Surely Obama is for blacks, so yes in that narrow meaning. However, it does not follow that being for blacks is to be against non-blacks, and any swift-boat campain that employed this language would surely be implying that.

Is it insulting/offensive? Yes. The implication is that blacks can only be appealing to whites if they are "Oreos", if they've somehow sold out on their "essential blackness" (whatever that is supposed to mean) and become "essentially white" (ditto). The "clearly black" is saying "he's not really an Oreo, he's just pretending to be one. In reality, he's black through and through."

I'm not sure I can count the ways that that is offensive, but it is offensive to just about everyone in multiple ways.

Anyways, was that what you were thinking of?

That's not the only possibility among the things I was thinking of for "clearly black", but it is a plausible interpretation. Someone is "clearly black" by identifying with and being influenced by black culture in certain ways and to a strong enough extent. That's not true of him. So pretending it is would be inaccurate, and it might be appropriate in certain contexts to point out that it's inaccurate (although it's debatable whether his statement is one of those; see below).

Now when you're saying it's insulting and offensive, are you saying that the Swift-Boating person saying this is saying something offensive, or that Obama is saying something offensive, or both? Because if this is the right interpretation, A case can be made that even Obama's saying it should count as offensive. I wasn't sure if you were saying that, though. Clearly the hypothetical Swift-Boater who would be doing this would be assuming that only the Oreo is appealing to whites. But isn't Obama assuming that too if he's so strongly resistant to people thinking he's not an Oreo that he'd call it a Swift-Boating attack?

So even if it's accurate to call this an attack based on false information, it's at least unclear whether including "clearly black" as part of the content Swift-Boating attack isn't giving in to the Swift-Boater's assumption and treating the implication that it would be bad to be clearly black in this sense. (I'd actually say the same about being called a foreigner as if that's bad, although that's a bit softened by the fact that foreigners, even ones who become citizens, aren't allowed to run for president.)

But there are two other interpretations of "clearly black" that aren't about cultural identification and influence, and think either one is plausibly what he meant (or perhaps some combination).

Mightn't you be overthinking this? My first impression was that he knows he may be dismissed as "foreign, odd, and [well,] clearly black" -- as in, well, clearly he's black, so that won't be a difficult charge to make.

I imagine video would settle the matter, if any is available.

Maybe. I suppose video or audio might lead to that kind of interpretation. But I can think of two other interpretations besides Wink's that take "clearly black" to be stronger in some way than "black", and any of the three (or some combination) really does fit with what people say about Obama.

I was trying to get at something along the lines of Wink's comment on Oreos. The phrase "clearly black" is meant to be insulting, but it's the potential Swift Boaters who would be intending the insult, not Obama. They would want to emphasize that, despite perceptions, there is nothing white about Obama. He is black through and through, which, in their view, would make him disqualified for office. If I'm close on this, I can't see that Obama is giving in to their assumptions. Instead, he's merely stating what those assumptions will be. As to your other two interpretations, I'll have to wait to see what you say because nothing else comes to mind.

My hesitation is that Obama could have said "what they see as clearly black". It sounds as if he's resisting being classified as clearly black and not just because he thinks it would be inaccurate but because he wouldn't want it to be true or because he thinks it would be politically bad to be clearly black. But that may just be a result of his trying to express something succinctly that isn't easy to say in such a short sentence and not an actually offensive assumption on his part.

Possibly, but I'd prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt until I had reason to believe otherwise. Had this been a written statement with plenty of time to think it over I might expect the phrasing you suggested. He may be resisting classification as clearly black. Whether or not this is offensive, though, goes back to the question of what the term means. If being thought of as clearly black means that he can have no meaningful common ground with other races, then the resistance is understandable. Also, considering the fact that he has a white mother, I wonder how much he might resent being classified as clearly black if that implies that he should be only black and, consequently, deny his white heritage.

Oh, sure. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm not accusing him of anything here. I just want to get to the bottom of what he was trying to say. If there are ways someone might justifiably think he was saying something offensive, I don't think it's a problem to note that. I did clarify that it might have been just a result of speaking quickly.

Your last sentence gets to one of the other things I thought he might have meant. (It's in fact the one that I think he did mean.) There's the issue of clearly black as 100% black (whatever that might mean given how mixed most American blacks are to begin with) as opposed to being mixed (with a white parent or perhaps grandparent rather than just a bunch of white and mixed people a ways back).

This interpretation also raises the same question about whether he's simply identifying an assumption people might have that it's better to be mixed than to be clearly black (and not endorsing it but not accepting the implication that he'd be worse if clearly black) or whether he's sort of understanding that to be a legitimate objection. I doubt he thinks it would be, but the way he said it, if this is what he meant, leaves it open for people to take him that way, and that can come across as insulting and offensive.

There is a third interpretation also, and it's actually the one I thought people would come up with first due to its being the reason some have given for saying he's not black.

Would this third interpretation have to do with the suggestion that, in order to truly be black in America, one must be able to claim a heritage of slavery and civil rights struggles? Something, according to this view, that Obama cannot do because his father is from Africa. Although the thought had crossed my mind, I rejected it because Obama seems to be putting words into the mouths of the potential Swift Boaters. If he had this charge in mind, wouldn't it make more sense to think that they would accuse him of not being clearly black?

Yes, that's the third one I had thought of, but I obviously hadn't thought it through very far. I never thought it was what he meant, so I was just keeping it in mind as something "clearly black" could be getting at with respect to Obama, just because of what people have said about him.

I think your explanation of why it couldn't be what he meant here is pretty good, though. People wouldn't accuse him of being clearly black to Swift-Boat him meaning this. It would have to be either cultural or biological parentage, and I lean toward parentage, but both are plausible.

In its context of saying: "foreign, odd, clearly black person," I think he was referring to people from Africa as opposed to blacks born & bred in the USA. He seems to me that he was implying that blacks in Africa are "clearly black." But what do I know? I say this because being Asian I kind of understand where Obama is coming from. I sometimes will say: "he is really Chinese". By this I mean that he is authentically Chinese because he was born and bred in Asia. It might not have any pejorative intent either. However, Obama associated the word "foreign" with "odd" and "scary" so that puts his comment into more question. Was he using it in a pejorative way? I don't know.

I guess that's one way to make more sense of the third interpretation. It doesn't seem likely to me, though. Wouldn't he have more easily said "clearly African"?

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