The Obama effect: changing race relations in America

Elisa Joy White
Elisa Joy White

By Leland Kim - bio | email

MANOA (KHNL) -  A day after Tuesday's historic inauguration, the question now turns to what impact President Barack Obama will have on race relations in America?

Obviously it is a very complex issue with deep-rooted feelings and perceptions that go back several centuries.  But University of Hawaii at Manoa professor Elisa White says the election of President Obama helps change the discourse on race in America.

White teaches about the African American experience and this class looks at contemporary African diaspora and African American communities beyond the United States.

A day after the first multicultural president takes office, the topic naturally turns to the historic inauguration.

"What is very interesting about President Obama is that he embodies many cultural experiences and ethnic experiences and regional experiences well," said White, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

She says those traits will help him deal with major international issues.

"We have someone who is going to look at these problems with certainly the spirit of change, but more specifically the intellectual acuity to actually go on and make change," said White.

And part of that change is teaching children of color that anyone can reach the highest office in the country, something in theory only until recently.

"So children of color, children who are Asian American, children who are African American, children of indigenous populations, native Hawaiian children across the board suddenly see a person of color, and say, 'Wow, this does actually happen,'" said White.

But, White says, African Americans have only been allowed to play a minor role in Hawaii's history.

"Hawaii is this interesting and exciting space where being of color is normalized and the majority is of color; it's a very multiethnic society," she said.  But African Americans are not necessarily a part of the greater history -- the larger history -- of Hawaii in terms of identifying locally with Hawaii. So if anything African Americans become a peripheral group, either on the side or if anything, transient.  So, if you are African American you are fighting a bit harder to find a place at the table, so to speak."

And White hopes President Obama can bring greater visibility to the African American community in Hawaii.

"But now with Obama, President Obama, being claimed as of Hawaii very vociferously and powerfully and joyously as the celebrations went on throughout the day yesterday," she said.  "You see at the same time that they're claiming an African American and African Americans as integral to the story of Hawaii for the first time."

And White says First Lady Michelle Obama will be a strong role model for young girls, an example of an intelligent woman who can juggle career and family.

"Many girls will look at her and see all of the possibilities appear in front of them," said White. "It's right there; it's a realized dream."