The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Obama’s Third Culture

One of the biggest hurdles President Obama faced during his run for presidency was the doubt surrounding his nationality as well his faith. During the 2008 elections many white middle class Americans assumed he was Muslim simply because of his foreign sounding name: Barack Hussein Obama.

Despite proving this being false, the misconception continued to be held by many Americans well into Obama’s presidency. Then came the so called “birthers” people, mostly pundits and business celebrities like Donald Trump, who questioned the President’s citizenship and his presidential legitimacy. The “birther” myth, and the media attention surrounding it, got so out of control that Obama succumbed to showing his birth certificate to prove he is an American.

Fast forward to 2012 and Trump once again doubts Obama’s legitimacy by questioning his education credentials. Trump posted a YouTube message directed to the President saying he would offer $5 million if Obama shared his credentials.

Obama is a rare and unique president with a complex upbringing that has polarized the media and left it scratching its head when it comes to categorizing him. Chicago native? First African American President? Half white?  Hawaiian? Indonesian? All of these labels have been used, but to simply box him into one of these categories is to ignore the complex life experiences that have defined his identity. Obama is all of the above and more. He’s a “Third Culture Kid.”

A “Third Culture Kid” or TCK for short was first coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useeme in the 1950’s when she began studying American families living overseas with their children. TCKs are nomads, children who grew up internationally in different cultures. They followed their parents for work or military service abroad, never having a permanent home.

David C. Pollack wrote a book, “Third Culture Kids: Growing Amongst Worlds” about TCKs in 1999, which was updated to a new edition in 2009.

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s),” Pollack said. “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

So what makes Obama a TCK? One need only read his first book “Dreams of My Father” to get an answer. The book, first released in 1995, chronicles Obama’s turbulent childhood. From his birth in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and a white American mother, to the years he spent in poverty stricken Indonesia, to his high school days in Hawaii, the book is a tell-all autobiography that explains the many complexities Obama faced forming his identity  internationally and multiculturally.

Having parents of two different nationalities, living in more than one country, being of mixed race, Obama struggled as a young adult to come to terms with his identity. Adding more to the confusion, his parents divorced when he was two and his father moved back to Kenya, absent from much of his childhood. While growing up, Obama was raised by a number of different people: his young mother, his Indonesian stepfather, and his grandparents in Hawaii.

Later in his life Obama found himself in New York City after transferring from his college in Los Angeles. In the city for the first time, he only had a single suitcase and letter from his father, whom he had recently started writing to again.

His father wrote he was welcome to visit Kenya after graduation and said “…the important thing is that you know your people, and also know where you belong.” That sentence set a spark in Obama.

“He made it sound simple, like calling directory assistance. ‘Information – what city, please?’ ‘Uh… I’m not sure. I was hoping you could tell me. The name’s Obama. Where do I belong?’… The same thoughts kept returning to me, though, as persistent as the beat of my heart.’ Where did I belong?”

This constant restlessness, the questioning of belonging and identity are one of the many symptoms that define TCKs. The answer to the question is both truth and paradox: home is everywhere and nowhere.

The problem that TCKs face growing up is coming to terms with their mixed identities in a world that divided and compartmentalized by identities that don’t fit their criteria. Because they never fully belong to a single country, culture, or race they feel left out. In a world divided among these lines, a TCK has a hard time fitting into this world view because they are post-racial, post-cultural, and post-national. They are literally global citizens without boundaries.

TCKs have many positive characteristics going for them. They often have large world views, speak multiple languages, and assimilate better in foreign cultures. They are also often more academically motivated — research showing that that the majority of TCKs attend college.

Racial and cultural boundaries have been blurring in the U.S. for quite some time. It is estimated that within the next thirty years, white Americans will have become a minority in the country. The world is also becoming smaller and smaller through globalization.

With America’s own identity constantly shifting it may be its greatest asset is that it has a president whose identity is a blurring of nationalities and cultures as well. America is slowly becoming post-cultural and post-racial, and who better to lead it than a TCK president?

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