Is "Obama/Black" the New Gray?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
...pic borrowed from Huffington Post

While MSNBC host Chris Matthews had a hard time remembering that President Obama was black after “The State of the Union” address, Urban Outfitters is having no trouble at all. In a recent online catalog for the retailer the short-sleeved, buttoned BDG Burnout Henley t-shirt was made available to consumers in, among a rainbow of colors, "Obama/Black." According to The Huffington Post, the creative naming was short lived. The shirt was made unavailable as of last Monday morning (Feb 1st). While the chain has sold Obama-themed t-shirts in the past, this is the first time "Obama" has been used as a color description.
Let’s take a look at the shirt. Most people say the shirt looks gray and then wonder why it is called “Obama/Black.” Dr. Ulli Ryder, a Professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, says that “what’s even more disturbing than using the man’s name as a euphemism for color is that Urban Outfitters is also changing the color.” Ryder asks, “how did this make it past editors, executives and the legal department?” Is this merely an aesthetic statement, or could it also be a multiracial one? In other words, is “Obama/Black” really the new gray?

A look at Obama’s public image campaign provides some answers. “Watching Obama campaign with his African American wife, his Indonesian-Caucasian half-sister, his Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law…all of their children,” not to mention the memories of his Kenyan father and white American mother and grandparents from Kansas, is evidence of an exciting multiracial moment, says Peggy Orenstein. Census statistics support this view, revealing that the population of multiracial children in the United States has soared from approximately 500,000 in 1970 to more than 6.8 million in 2000, and that they are happier than their mono-racial counterparts.

This “happy ending” to our multiracial story turns multiracial people into a new model minority and makes them the perfect post-race poster children. As a result, many in mainstream culture are now questioning the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. In a recent interview with CNN’s John King, President Obama was asked about the role he thinks race and racism play in his political reception. The President suggested that while racism exists, it lives more so in our imaginations than our intentions.

If post-racial proponents are interpreting Obama’s words and images correctly, then by all accounts we may be on the verge of entering an era in which discriminatory racial barriers, partisan emotions and divisiveness have been dismantled. Put bluntly, in post-racial America, racism will be dead. If post-racial proponents are incorrect, then our dream of a post-racial America is a myth that needs exploding. In either case Obama is, as Orenstein claims, our emblematic mixed messenger. His ethnically ambiguous background allows many to forget the discrimination he, and people of color in general, continue to face. That’s why it’s so interesting that the “Obama/Black” t-shirt is gray, a neutral achromatic color midway between white and black. What’s fascinating about this concept is that it simultaneously deconstructs and reifies racial thinking. One the one hand, it acknowledges multiracial identity existing along a continuum from white to black. On the other hand, it transforms the “multi” of multiracial identity into a singular powerless neutral. Does this mean that the label “Obama/Black” is a racist one? Or, is it emblematic of a new post-race moment?

Dr. Ralina Joseph of the University of Washington explains that post-race has two meanings that are often conflated. In one sense the existence of a post-race era proves that the Civil Rights era accomplished its goals. Therefore, a post-race era is one in which racism has no significance. In another sense living in a post-race era means living in an era in which race itself is not significant. Therefore, an “Obama/Black” gray t-shirt should be meaningless. The idea is that we have made impressive progress as a society on issues of race and racism. We should be proud of ourselves. And, we should finally be able to have a little fun with the idea of race, right?

Wrong. According to Jezebel.Com, Urban Outfitters apologized in response to the consumer outcry. They said, “many customers have brought to our attention one of the color names listed for our BDG Burnout Henley, and rightfully so. We screwed up, and are sincerely sorry. The burnout pattern on this shirt is comprised of two colors - one is an internally developed color we called "Obama Blue" and the other is "Black". Unfortunately our website database truncated this combination to read “Obama/Black." We should have caught the error, and apologize for offending anyone.”

Does Urban Outfitters’ wrongdoing make our President right? Do race and racism exist more in our imaginations than in our intentions? I’m not so sure. The “Obama/Black” shirt reminds us that the question of who or what is black, or any monoracial identity for that matter, is becoming more and more difficult to answer in the face of racial mixing and predicted results of this year’s Census. So, if “Obama/Black” is the new gray, then the new question becomes what is the new black?

Pew Research Center

According to the Pew Center, most Americans don't see Obama as black, but as mixed race.

President's race

I realize a few years ago Obama is not the only black president we had.Abraham Lincoln is mix half black and white and many people don't know this,part of it could be why he free the slaves when he found out about his roots.I'm not positive about this but I know Lincoln did the right thing.


I saw that in the catalog also, but I don't know that I immediately jumped to the race issue as other people did. I think that the company's explanation was valid and their public apology was whole-hearted. I sincerely doubt that some politically-driven individual tried to sneak one past the editors and cry out with some anti-Obama jargon. A mistake is a mistake, no matter how offended someone gets. As far as "what is the new black?," I'm not quite sure.. I think that there are so many instances of mixing in the country that any "pure black" from anywhere is virtually non-existent on our soil anymore. I'm sure that there are pockets of "pure bloods," but in general, one of the basic ideas of America since its foundations is the "melting pot." Maybe, with regards to race, there is no such thing as new/old black/white... maybe we're ALL mutts of a sort. The question is, why do people feel the need to be bothered by it as much as we hear about in everyday life?

Sarah Ludwiczak

I find it kind of funny.

I find it kind of funny. Brands are always looking for new ways to describe colors and this one offers wit and perhaps even political insight. While it may be tempting to be offended by every single racial remark, its really a waste of time. Better to stop focusing energy on things like this..its really not that serious.