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.”