Below are two photos — one of Barack Obama as an adult and one of a young Obama and his Grandfather, Stanley Dunham (found here and here). I tried a little experiment in class. I put up the photo of adult Obama and I had my students make a list of what characteristics made him identifiably Black, in their view. Every one of them put on their list his nose, lips, and hair, and several made comments about his ears or just that “the combination of all his facial features” was “clearly” Black.
Then I brought up the photo of young Obama and his grandfather alongside it:
It led to a really interesting discussion. Because my students think of Obama as Black, they saw all his features through that racial lens. It was obvious to them that he had “Black” facial features. After viewing the photos next to one another, they talked about how the two men look very similar, but their facial features seem “clearly” Black on one person and “clearly” White on the other because we’re used to believing that Blacks and Whites look very different. Because they believe in racial differences, they see them. This activity seemed to really help students grasp what I meant when I talked about the way we identify things as racial differences when they’re really variations that occur in many different groups that we swear are physically distinct from one another.
It’s interesting because I’d halfway expected my students to argue that Obama doesn’t “really” look Black at all — that they would say his skin color and hair, perhaps, were identifiable as African American, but that they would point out that he’s half-White and argue that in fact he doesn’t have stereotypically Black or White features. I mean, that would made sense, right? But I’ve tried this with three classes now, as well as several random individuals I’ve subjected to it to see if it might work as a class activity, and no one has yet failed to identify a number of the facial features Obama and Dunham share as specifically African-American features when they see them on Obama.
What a great example of racialization and the social construction of race.
See also our Pinterest pages: what color is flesh? and the social construction of race.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
mordicai — October 24, 2008
OH MAN that is a good exercise, & a nice pair off photos.
Ric Reyes — October 24, 2008
Check this link out:
The author says:
"This project consists of a series of 16 color portraits of people of mixed ethnic origin in front of primary color backgrounds. The images challenge the concept of race by highlighting the disparity between the stark natural boundaries between the primary colors, and the ambiguous and artificial, yet commonly accepted boundaries between the different races. This project asks the viewer to question the existence of race in nature.
The aim of the portraits is to strip our idea of race down to its elements. It is in this nakedness that the viewer watches the races literally dissolve in front of their face like so many moth-eaten clothes. The tone is neither confrontational nor ironic, but rather unassuming in its directness"
Kirsten — October 24, 2008
He does look very like his grandfather.
I saw this news story today which also has an image that might be useful - Jean Charles de Menezes's face juxtaposed with the face of the suspected bomber the police mistook him for. De Menezes was Brazilian, and if I had met him in the street, I would have automatically classed him as white. The police didn't; he was shot for living in the same block of flats as a bomber, and for looking as though he might maybe be Asian.
I'm also reminded that when the "shoe-bomber" Richard Reed was arrested, there was widespread incredulity that this could be his real name, because surely terrorists are called Mohammed. Or Hussein. But Reed is of mixed ethnic origin and that is indeed his birth name. In real life terrorists don't come with handily obvious ethnic markers.
Voideka — October 25, 2008
When I was younger I had a friend who was bi-racial. The notable thing is really that the features are not all white or black. It looks more like the features have blended together, so while some features may look more black (hair for example) others will look more white. Interestingly, I see a similar pattern with Barack as my friend Frankie, with the hair and skin color looking the most black, while the other features looked more white.
Charley — October 25, 2008
You have obviously framed the question. If you had asked, "What facial features identify Obama as white?" you would very likely have gotten very different answers. Seriously, have you not heard of the term, "confirmation bias"? Perhaps if you had not involved race with your question they would not have supplied answers involved with race.
practice before you preach
OMG — October 25, 2008
Let me get this straight. Your students see a picture of a man with dark skin and tightly curled dark hair and you think they should focus on the features that aren't stereotypically black? Of course, this is after you ask them about his "black" features?
You do research in sociology?
Ben Scherrey — October 25, 2008
I thought Bill Clinton already claimed to be the first black president?!?! :)
While, epidemiologically, your positing of a well known figure injects too much bias to get a useful answer - it tends to confirm my own observations that race is almost inexplicably intertwined and becoming indistinguishable from culture/environment.
I think, had Obama not been a known figure and you provided a list of possible racial profiles that a large percentage would have chosen arabic or semitic over african. Your questioning reveals more about cultural than racial bias. Abuse of the, now nonsensical term, African-American is an excellent example of this as many American blacks have no historically traceable roots to African and any naturalized White Africans would be ostracized for adopting the moniker for themselves.
Pietro Watanabe — October 25, 2008
I never saw Obama as a "black" with traditional facial structural features that were identifiable as "black". Maybe this because I spent my childhood as a Army brat, where racial diversity and it's constituent mix in the children that were my companions. Only his skin tones and in particular, his the color of his lips, suggest a black background. Make his skin tone a little more tan. Give his lips a pinker color and then one would swear a asian background.
David — October 25, 2008
I would say the reason your students don't go back on their perspectives is because they're so busy trying to defend their initial thoughts, they don't process the fact that Obama does indeed look like his grandfather.
Analyst — October 25, 2008
http://www.filthyrichmond.com is good
Jiff Woods — October 25, 2008
All I know is God help us all if that idiot McBush pulls it off next month.
lord — October 25, 2008
PEOPLE wake the up all these pictures are FAKE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!FAKE
Barack Obama’s grandfather looks like a white Barack Obama [pics] - The WebZappR — October 25, 2008
[...] grandfather looks like a white Barack Obama [pics] submitted by reallifepixel to reddit.com [link] [99 [...]
Joanne Coletti — October 25, 2008
OH, I see now, he's not a full blooded negro after all then. Still a terrorist though.
Jordans — October 25, 2008
Unreal. I wonder how many look a likes will come about once Obama wins the presidency?
dave — October 25, 2008
LOOK OUT FOR JOHN MCCAIN IN THE BACKGROUND HE'S GOT A STICK!!!
AP — October 26, 2008
dave, good one man!
Kathleen — October 28, 2008
I don't see Barack Obama as black. I drive a truck for a living and get most of the news from xm. I do pick up the USA Today and skim thru when I can. When I am home to watch the news on tv, I am like "oh yeah, Barack is dark skinned." His color of skin has not entered into my judgement on voting. I hope others will feel the same and do the right thing.
I am small town USA, female, white Irish Catholic, volleyball mom.
And I approve this message!
BygXexy — November 19, 2008
What the hell does it matter? Before he was elected people who did not want to support him had some LAME excuses for not doing so....Everything from his tax plan (even though most of them were BROKE and they stood to directly benefit from it) to "I don't really know him and he doesn't have that much experience"....Yeah, but ya DUMB ASS was ready to vote for JMc and Sarah Palin with her country bumbkin ass!!! And she had ZERO experience and even LESS intelligence....In other words, you would rather have had Dumb and Dumber running the country JUST because they were WHITE, than to have a Columbia/Harvard graduate....Hmmm?
simone — January 12, 2009
President Obama is going to show the world hues of the rainbow and foil any attempt at categorization.
pitseleh — January 23, 2009
Thanks for posting this. I actually used it today in class for a discussion of social construction of race. It worked very well. Students had a lot of ways to classify Obama as "black" - skin, mouth, hair, eyes... and only a few arguments for how he looked "white" -- some said mouth here. When I showed the grandfather, I asked what race this man was and they yelled out "white!" and when I asked why, they said "just cause he is. He's white." So that led to a small discussion of white as the default category. When I put them side-by-side, they were amazed at how much the two looked alike.
I think they enjoyed it, and it helped me bring home some great points. So THANK YOU!!!
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Anonymous — February 11, 2009
it was a god story how lovely
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querida — October 14, 2009
who ever did this is stupid.because obama will never look like or even be like bush, next time try a different president.
bush is the deviland so is his father.amen!!!!
alex selven dahanu — November 3, 2009
it was a great idea obrigado my buddy
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Baxter — June 3, 2010
has anybody ever wondered what obama would look like if he were black?
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ting11 — December 27, 2010
Obama as an adult and one of a young Obama and his Grandfather
Cloudymermaid — October 6, 2012
That's an adorable picture and yes I can not believe how alike they look.... One interesting thing that I heard is that as you grow up you pick up all kinds of mannerisms and facial expressions from the people that are most often around you and so your face slowly but surely picks up the same wrinkles etc and this is why when you grow up you find that you look sooo much like the parents that raised you. This is one of the reasons why if you separate identical twins at birth and have them in completely different families/environments they look so different.... biology is so cool....
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DowneastDiva — June 6, 2013
Sptting image , as they say
brugorosa — June 6, 2013
I saw the pic with the young Obama first, and my first thought was... oh, that's a strange pic of the president playing with a kid... Problem is, i'm italian, and even if i lived in the US a few years now, i've been apparently socialized to see things in a different way. For example i'm not always sure if somebody is "black", African Americans do not look like African people to me most of the time (and of some who looked very "African" to me, well, i discovered they were Nigerians...) FInally a lot of "black" people look very "italian" to me... Particularly, Obama really looks like a friend of mine in Italy... who, as far as i know, doesn't have any close African ancestor...
treading — June 7, 2013
I believe I understand the intent of the classroom exercise. And, even the overall point of social construction (although, all life is socially constructed - even how we understand and make meaning with "hard facts.") ... My concern with these current race discussions is that it can diminish positive racial identity, which many communities 'of color' value. It seems like yet another - neocolonial - way to determine race significance.
No race — July 27, 2013
Public Enemy (rap group): White man, white woman= white baby. Black man black woman= black baby. Black man, white woman= black baby. Pretty much sums it up.
DarekG — July 27, 2013
This has nothing to do with social construction of race as far as I can tell, unless you were to ask about the context of the beach, or dress. And what do you mean "we are used to believing that blacks and whites look different". They do look different. This is not a social construct, it is a physical reality. Are you saying the variations in physical features among blacks is the same as between blacks and whites? The spread might cover both but the difference in attributes is clearly distinct because it is an attribute of their race, made that way through different evolutionary trajectories.
Your students answers are not an example of social construction of race, they are an example of what happens when a white mother and black mother have a baby and it turns out more black than white. Are you confused?
Vincent Cho — July 28, 2013
Thanks so much for this! It's a great lesson!
steffi — July 29, 2013
My problem here is, that this example does not proof that race is socially constructed. One could argue, that different human races are characterized by a different distribution of (for example facial) features. Meaning that a short wide nose is more common among black people. This neither means, that white people cannot have short wide noses nor does it mean, that all black people have this feature. But it can still be a black characteristic.
Ariana Morris — July 30, 2013
Could it have to do with how you phrased your question? "What characteristics make Obama Identifiably Black" carries a presumption of him having black characteristics. Whereas a question like, "Do any of Obama's characteristics make him identifiably black" might have a different outcome?
I've never thought Obama looked particularly 'black' as far as the characteristics I typically think of as African features. I find it very surprising that not a single one of your students thought as I do, and can only assume it's because they were being compliant rather than challenging the assumption that he 'looks black'.
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Bobby Davis jr — June 29, 2020
No matter what your race-even mixed- you're gonna resemble your blood relatives. He's a perfect chocolate/vanilla swirl mixture.😇