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Thursday, March 8, 2007 - Page updated at 02:02 AM

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Jerry Large

More to culture than color

Seattle Times staff columnist

Ethnicity in America makes sense if you get quantum mechanics.

You know how light can be a wave and a particle depending on how it is observed? Yeah, well, so Barack Obama is black and he isn't black.

Recently we've been told that the Illinois senator and presidential candidate has slave owners in the family on his mother's side.

More evidence, some say, of Obama's distance from African Americans. Nonsense. Just the opposite. Lots of African Americans have slave holders in the family tree.

The fiery black activist Al Sharpton recently learned a relative of his was owned by the family of the late senator and segregationist Strom Thurmond.

Sharpton has set out to have his DNA analyzed to see whether he might be related to Thurmond.

Sharpton was not pleased about the possibility. But Thurmond's daughter — that would be his black daughter — came to her family's defense.

All intertwined like this, could we be on the cusp of realizing that black and white Americans are one big family? Well, not just yet.

Kinship is not just about genes. It's about culture, history, class and a host of other factors.

People get mutual support, an identity, maybe even a purpose.

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Last weekend, I watched a couple of immigrant groups celebrate their cultural ties.

Saturday night at a Ghanaian celebration in Federal Way, grownups dressed in traditional clothing and ate traditional food. The children, who looked and sounded thoroughly American, read aloud bits of Ghana's history.

One mispronounced the name of Ghana, "his" country.

In a mobile world, group identity isn't always automatic.

On Sunday, I attended the Lantern Festival fundraiser for the Seattle Chinese Garden.

We drove a couple of teenage students from China to and from the event. Afterward, my wife asked whether they liked the traditional dancing and music.

Nope. Old people like that stuff, they said. We like hip-hop.

One thing that sharpens racial or ethnic identities is conflict. People circle the wagons when they feel threatened or use shared identity to rally supporters when they want to dominate another group.

The group decides who's in and who's out, or who on the outside is an enemy or an ally.

Thus, we have the question of whether Obama is black.

Obama, the son of a white American and a black Kenyan, isn't descended from people who were enslaved in America. But when it comes to racial identity, people's reactions are generally based on the superficial.

We are greatly affected by how other people see us, and Obama's skin color would have people put him in the box marked black American.

Obama has chosen to embrace that designation. Was there really a choice?

I hear white people chiding those black folks who question his blackness. These whites say he is clearly black. Interesting that they don't say he is clearly white. Don't they want him?

Light's puzzling duality has nothing on human complexity.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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