“Her story is America’s story,” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said last week, appearing alongside Harris at their first joint campaign address. But people of mixed racial or ethnic backgrounds often have to deal with others stumbling over their American stories. Harris, who has said she identifies with her Indian heritage and with being Black, told The Washington Post last year that people have struggled to categorize her since she first ran for office: “My point was: I am who I am,” she said. “I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
Harris’s selection brought about a flurry of reactions to the ticket’s historic nature. News media waffled between descriptors, one anchor referring to Harris as Black moments before another would clarify that she is Asian American, too. Some named both right off the bat, while others played it safe with “woman of color,” the broadest of terms. All are accurate, but suggest there is room for Americans to expand their views of racial identity.
People can be “racially illiterate” when it comes to multiracial identity, said Nitasha Tamar Sharma, a professor at Northwestern University specializing in African American and Asian American studies. Anyone looking for proof need only rewind the clock to Barack Obama’s run for president. Obama, born to a White mother and Black father, dealt with relentless questioning of his identity — “was he Black enough?” some asked early in his campaign — and was subject to racist, false “birther” claims from his political opponents. Similar attacks have already been launched on Harris by President Trump and his supporters.
Part of what differentiates the conversation on Harris from the discussion of Obama’s racial identity is her lack of White parentage.
“Black and White is definitely read as the primary binary in which race relations are understood,” Sharma said. “If you’re a dual-minority biracial — Mexican and Filipino, Black and Indian — Whiteness gets decentered. But there’s still a tussle happening, because this reflects Black and Asian relations in the United States.”
While Harris has never shied away from discussing her Indian heritage, the dominant narrative of her career has been that of a Black woman rising through political ranks. Part of the reason begins at home. The senator wrote in her memoir about how her Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, made sure to raise her daughters as "confident Black women" even after divorcing their father, Donald Harris. Gopalan understood that, as a family friend told The Post's Robin Givhan last year, "in the '60s, you were either Black or White. There was no real distinction between Caribbean or Indian."
Harris attended Howard University, known to many as the “Black Harvard” and to the senator, she told Givhan, as an institution that “very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being.” She joined the oldest historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. These experiences were central to Harris coming into her identity as a Black woman, and they resonate with many Black Americans who were proud to see one of their own become a contender for the nation’s second-highest office.
Such credentials give Harris a “sense of authenticity,” said Tasha Philpot, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “In an era with such segmented voting blocs, and having Black women as one of the most consistent and strongest voting blocs, it certainly helps Kamala Harris, having that stamp of approval.”
Glynda Carr, chief executive of Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to supporting Black women in politics, described this as a “culture shift moment.”
“Just as many of us are daughters of the Chisholm legacy,” she said, “in the history books, you will see a generation of leaders that will tie back to this moment of Kamala Harris.”
There can be a danger in placing too much stock in symbolic representation, cautioned Daryl Harris, a Howard political science professor. It is just one facet of a politician, he said, and can be a “completely unsatisfying dimension if the bacon is not brought home” in the form of policies that serve a community well. Some liberals have criticized Harris’s record as a prosecutor, for instance, claiming that she upheld anti-Black structures.
But her identity remains significant, and voters pay attention to it “whether they want to admit it or not,” Harris said. Philpot noted that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage, and 55 years since the Voting Rights Act, aimed at ridding the process of anti-Black discrimination.
“Kamala Harris is someone people can really get behind and be energized by,” Philpot said. “She represents groups that haven’t typically been represented at this level.”
Indian Americans count themselves among those groups, though that aspect of Harris's background has been overlooked in the political sphere to the extent that many seemingly learned of it last week. Part of this could be because of how the senator presents herself, said Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American Studies at Amherst College. Harris tends not to delve into her Indian heritage extensively but has touched on it before, writing in her memoir about the influences of her mother and progressive grandfather, explaining the Sanskrit meaning of her first name ("lotus") and making dosas in a video with Mindy Kaling.
While the video with Kaling only skimmed the surface of the senator’s Indian roots, it resonated with viewers who saw their own family habits in Harris and Kaling’s stories of storing spices in Taster’s Choice jars. “You are Indian, and I don’t know that everybody knows that,” remarked Kaling, whose father is from Tamil Nadu, the same Indian state as Harris’s mother.
“It bothered me that she would get read only as Black,” Dhingra said. “Biographically, not just ancestrally, it’s not accurate. . . . I think it does kind of keep us from embracing the fact that people can be multiracial, and that it’s something meaningful.”
While Dhingra said he hopes it is “painfully obvious” why African Americans are the dominant group mentioned in discussions of race in the United States, he chalked some of the dynamic of those surrounding Harris’s dual heritage to general confusion over how to categorize Indian Americans in the first place. People of South Asian descent, like Harris, aren’t always seen as Asian American the way those with East Asian roots tend to be. It wasn’t until 1980 that “Asian Indian” became a category on the U.S. Census, which only offered an option to self-identity with multiple races beginning in 2000.
Harris also challenges division sown by the model minority myth, which values Asian Americans’s proximity to Whiteness over solidarity with other people of color. She represents “a different kind of Asian American,” Dhingra said. “One who is really powerful . . . who believes in coalition-building across minority groups to achieve change. There’s a long history of that in Asian America, but it’s not the dominant narrative.” He pointed to Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama fighting alongside Malcolm X.
As such, Harris’s Indian heritage has been increasingly discussed relative to her being Black. Beyond initial reactions of pride — and relief among liberals who were glad to see a South Asian politician who “isn’t another Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley,” a few academics noted — some Indian Americans have taken Harris’s historic achievement as an opportunity to reckon with anti-Blackness within the community.
Harris’s racial makeup evokes the connection between Black Americans fighting for their rights and those who resisted colonialism overseas, according to Shilpa Davé, an American studies professor at the University of Virginia. During the joint address with Biden, Harris recalled how her immigrant parents met in Oakland while participating in a civil rights demonstration, the kind to which they’d later bring her along.
“Her narrative harkens back to the possibilities of what America can bring,” Davé said. “In this time especially, I think people want to see that hope again.”