My President was a Third Culture Kid

Although he may not have meant it, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ article on President Obama in The Atlantic pretty much names him a Third Culture Kid (TCK) without explicitly saying so. According to Wikipedia, TCK’s are “children raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or the culture of the country given on the child’s passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years. They are exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences.”

Third Culture Kids often learn to live in two spaces without fully occupying one or the other.  Without being capable of occupying one or the other. President Obama was raised a black man by a white woman and white grandparents. But his racial characteristics are not simply what has helped him appeal to white and blacks (and other minorities). From Coates’ article:

To simply point to Obama’s white mother, or to his African father, or even to his rearing in Hawaii, is to miss the point. For most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives. Biraciality is no shield against this; often it just intensifies the problem. What proved key for Barack Obama was not that he was born to a black man and a white woman, but that his white family approved of the union, and approved of the child who came from it.

Click here to read the whole thing. It’s well worth your time.

Being a Third Culture Kid is perhaps analogous to being bi-racial in some aspects. There is a marked cultural difference between being Black in America and being of European/Caucasian ancestry. And so President Obama has learned to how to code-switch between worlds. He was taught to see the positivity of his white side by grandparents who embraced him wholeheartedly.

Obama’s early positive interactions with his white family members gave him a fundamentally different outlook toward the wider world than most blacks of the 1960s had. Obama told me he rarely had “the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity or judge me [other than] on the basis of merit.” He continued, “The kind of working assumption” that white people would discriminate against him or treat him poorly “is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.”

Venn Diagram of the Third Culture KidIn his memoir, President Obama speaks about falling in love with a white woman and realizing how different their worlds really were. “And I knew that if we stayed together, I’d eventually live in hers,” he writes. “Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.” But that’s what a Third Culture Kid does. We live as the Outsider because we have no choice. Sometimes we don’t even know how to be an insider. Sometimes neither culture will treat as an an insider.

That’s bleak, isn’t it. But instead, I find solace in Obama’s journey. How he found a sense of himself (as Coates writes) working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. And because of that background, he is able to do something that has become very difficult for people of color to do – trust the white man and convince (through two Presidential elections) the white man to trust him and his vision. It’s not an act, it’s not suckin’ up to the masta or acting white.

But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow, can credibly and sincerely trust the majority population of this country. That trust is reinforced, not contradicted, by his blackness. Obama isn’t shuffling before white power (Herman Cain’s “shucky ducky” act) or flattering white ego (O. J. Simpson’s listing not being seen as black as a great accomplishment). That, too, is defensive, and deep down, I suspect, white people know it. He stands firm in his own cultural traditions and says to the country something virtually no black person can, but every president must: “I believe you.” [Note: link for shucky ducky is my addition, not in Coates article]

Unlike some minorities, I was lucky enough to grow up knowing good white folks. Although my parents stressed that as a brown kid and as a Muslim in a non-Muslim country, I would need to be twice as good as the Amrikans in order to succeed, I have never really felt discriminated against. It’s very hard to look some of your best friends in the eye and see the white devil, even when we disagree on a political candidate. Coates would call that naivete. Perhaps he’s right to a degree and his experience of discrimination is certainly more present than mine. But his growing pessimism about the redeemability of the American project is one of the ways in which he parts company with people like President Obama, whose background and ability to speak to all Americans while being authentic to the African-American experience is an inspiration to people like me, caught betwixt worlds.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying that he will not live in his fears. I celebrate that notion. Against all the odds. I refuse to live in my fears. Much like my Third Culture President.

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  • Nusrat ‘Emma’ Khan

    I’m sharing this b/c V good pts! I also clearly remember that line from Obama’s 1st book re: his ex-gf.