This photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows the future Democratic presidential hopeful on the beach with Stanley Armour Dunham, his grandfather on his mother's side.
Isles shape Obama’s racial identity
Attention focuses on "melting pot" culture and local experiences
>> Multiracial nation
By becoming the first black presidential candidate to secure the nomination of a major political party, Barack Obama is forcing many voters across the nation to question their views on race.
In Hawaii, the question is particularly pertinent: Census figures show one person in five reports being of more than one race.
With a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama is described as multiracial, biracial or hapa.
"Calling him 'biracial' as opposed to black is really beside the point because it's estimated that between 75 percent and 90 percent of African Americans are also of European descent," says Elisa Joy White, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"Most African Americans, regardless of being racialized as black, are biracial or multiracial," White said.
Roosevelt Freeman, office manager for state Rep. Colleen Meyer and a local Republican volunteer since 1996, says Obama is getting attention in Hawaii just because he was born here.
"I think voters are just excited that he is from here. I think if he were green and from here and was on the national stage, it would be the same," said Freeman, who is black.
For others, the idea of Obama encompassing Hawaii's diversity holds much of the attraction of the young Harvard-trained lawyer.
In a speech before the state Democratic convention last month, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who was friends with Obama's parents at UH, called Obama special.
"The result of this union brought us the first world citizen who can cross over not just this nation but across the world to bring the message of Hawaii, the message of aloha, of togetherness, openness, tolerance and diversity," Abercrombie said.
White added in an e-mail interview that despite whatever "hapa street cred" Obama has in Hawaii, it doesn't displace the prejudice blacks find here.
"Being of African descent is not valued in the same way that other ethnic backgrounds are valued here. In spite of the many positive aspects of multiethnic, multiracial and multicultural interaction in Hawaii, we still have to realize ... that being black continues to be negatively perceived in Hawaii," White said.
In a 1999 essay written for Punahou's school alumni magazine, Obama recalls how his first perceptions of Hawaii as being "the world's mythical melting pot" changed that by the time he graduated from Punahou, his consciousness of race was much sharper.
"As an African American teenager in a school with few African Americans, I probably questioned my identify a bit harder than most," Obama wrote. "As a kid from a broken home and family of relatively modest means, I nursed more resentments than my circumstances justified and didn't always channel those resentments in particularly constructive ways."
Kathryn Waddell Takara, who designed UH's first black studies program and is black, adds that Obama still grew up in Hawaii, which gave him breathing room and perspective on being a black male in America.
"I think growing up outside of traditional America gave him a certain freedom and optimism. ... Someone born on the mainland, particularly a male, would have had quite a different experience," Takara said.
Obama today considers himself both black and "local," to the point of telling a Hawaii voter during a mainland rally to "vote for the local guy."
"It is evident that Obama considers himself to be black, prefers this description of his ethnicity, chose a wife who is black and established his career serving the black community of Chicago," says Miles Jackson, a retired UH professor and author of a history of blacks in Hawaii.
"He appears to be comfortable with himself as a black person," said Jackson, who is also the former dean of the UH library school.
Freeman, however, says Obama has been able to use his race to his advantage.
"He would not be historical if he were a Caucasian, he would just be the junior senator from Illinois," Freeman said.
In the end, many wonder if Obama's campaign will let America set aside the debate on race.
"Race has a very real impact on our lives, but it is not the fixed reality some would like to believe it is," says White.
"If the reality of race starts to sink in, maybe we'll be knowledgeable enough to start dealing with the absurdity of its social impact," White said.
Jackson adds, "As long as people of African ancestry have been in this country and as long as they have been multiracial, you would think people in this country would have gotten used to it by now."