Post-race? Nation, Inheritance and the Contradictory Performativity of Race in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’ Speech

Post-race? Nation, Inheritance and the Contradictory Performativity of Race in Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’ Speech

thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory & culture
Volume 10, Number 1 (2011)
18 pages

Bridget Byrne, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences
University of Manchester

This article takes the speech that Barack Obama made in his campaign for democratic nomination in 2008 as a moment in the performativity of race. It argues that Obama was unable to sustain an attempt to be ‘post race’, but is also asks the extent to which Obama was able to re-write the way in which race is positioned within the US, particularly with reference to the place of African-Americans within the national narrative.


[S]ome people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it usually is a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustment they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some tell-tale sign. They no longer know who I am.
(Obama, Dreams from my Father xv).

It’s not likely that there are too many people left who do not know who Barack Obama is, or that he is the product of a ‘brief union’ as he puts it, between ‘a black man and a white woman, an African and an American’ (Obama, Dreams from my Father xv). Nonetheless, Obama’s racial identity remains a source of fascination. The website hosted a discussion thread in March 2008 prompted by the question ‘What ethnicity is Obama’. The original questioner was interested in exploring ‘his white half’s ethnicity’. One of the respondents to this thread provides links to a website publishing Obama’s family tree and writes ‘it is amazing to see just how ‘white’ his mother and grandparents are’. The same respondent also provides a picture from Obama’s mother’s high school yearbook to demonstrate her ‘amazing’ whiteness as well as one of Obama with his white grandparents. The thread continues with a string of photos of different members of his family (including his half-Indonesian sister’s ‘Oriental husband who came from Canada’). This is just one example of the fascination that Obama’s racial positioning prompts in supporters and detractors alike and suggests that for many, it takes more than a ‘split-second’ adjustment to reconcile themselves to complex ideas of family, heritage and racialized identities.

This paper will explore a particular moment in the racialized positioning of Obama and his own self-positioning as an example of the performativity of race or possibly of ‘post-race’. The paper will take a key instance when Obama put his own racial positioning on the stage, in response to a particular set of political events. Through an examination of his ‘A more perfect union’ speech in Philadelphia during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination (18th March 2008), I want to consider the extent to which we can ‘trouble race’ in the same way that Judith Butler has argued for the troubling of gender. The campaign election of Barack Obama has inserted the concept of ‘post-race’ into popular discourse in a forceful way. This article will question what the theoretical literature, which might regard race to be ‘under-erasure’ rather than ‘overcome,’ can offer to an analysis of the positioning of Obama. This is important because, despite longstanding academic and activist insistence that ‘race’ is a social construction devoid of any inherent or essential meaning, the ontological status of ‘race’ remains in question. As the reaction to Barack Obama shows, race is something that we still appear to need to ‘know’ about each other (and perhaps particularly about those who are not ‘white’). Yet, as I will argue, the racialized performativity offered by Obama is far from clear-cut and suggests that a more complex analysis is required. This paper will first explore the ideas of being ‘beyond’ or ‘post’ race and then consider how the notion of gender performativity might be productively extended to race peformativity. Then it will return to the speech given by Barack Obama in the course of his nomination campaign to explore both the impossibility for some figures to step outside of race, but also the potential scope to re-fashion concepts of race and inheritance, and particularly their relation to the nation…

Read the entire article here.

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