In Dreams from My Father, what were Obama's difficulties as a kid who was a social "outcast"?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the greatest difficulties that Barack experienced as a social "outcast" kid was being unable to find a "home" in any social group.

As a kid, Barack Obama was different in many ways.  He was different on the level of race because he was biracial.  He possessed an unconventional family in that his father left when he was young and he lived with his mother in Indonesia. The constant movement throughout his youth provided another layer of difference.  All of this translates to a lack of stability in his life and the feeling of being an "outcast."  

There were specific instances where the challenges in being an outcast were directly felt.  At these moments, Barack understood the reality of lacking a group or a social home where he could feel fully accepted. When he was asked by a teacher what tribe his father was from in Kenya, being a social outcast proved to be pointedly difficult: "When I finally said 'Luo,' a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey.”  Later that day, a girl asked him if she could touch his hair while another child asked him if his father ate people.  Being one of the few African-Americans in the classroom demonstrated the problems of being an outsider: “The novelty of having me in the class quickly wore off for the other kids, although my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow.”  The lack of belonging was one of the greatest difficulties in being an outcast for Barack Obama.

These difficulties followed him when he was older. Fellow African-American students criticized him for being too approachable to those in the position of power, most of whom were white: “Just like I see you getting along, talking your game with the teachers when you need them to do you a favor. All that stuff about 'Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.'”   When Barack brought some of his white friends to an African-American party, they were uncomfortable, and one of them commented to him that "I can see how it must be tough for you and Ray sometimes, at school parties… being the only black guys and all.”  In both communities, Barack experienced being an outcast as a kid.  Not being able to have a social home where he could be accepted for who he was represented a major obstacle.  In different settings, the experience that he "didn't belong" lingered.