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Kamala Harris forces us to look beyond Black and White

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When Kamala D. Harris was running for the Senate four years ago, I interviewed one of her supporters and was struck by how he talked about why he thought her heritage made her the perfect representative for California, one of a handful of states with a majority-minority population.

He noted that Harris was not just a Black American but that her father was Jamaican. And she wasn’t East Asian but South Asian, her mother an immigrant from India.

Since presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named Harris, California’s junior Democratic senator, as his running mate, she has mostly been celebrated for being the first Black woman to run for vice president of the United States on a major-party ticket. Her identity as Indian American is mentioned second, if at all, to the chagrin of some South Asians who are just as excited about her achievement.

Kamala Harris isn’t the first Black woman to run for VP. Meet Charlotta Bass.

As happened during the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, the only other Black person to appear on a major-party presidential ticket, there has been some debate about how to describe Harris’s identity.

Even though Obama’s father was not a Black American, he had a White mother and thus fit into the popular perception of what it means to be biracial. Ann Morning, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, said that for centuries our thinking about what it means to be biracial has been shaped by the “one-drop" rule and being mixed-race meant “white and something else.” Harris is “not just biracial but she’s bi-ethnic.” Those layered identities, she said, offer the country the chance to “look past racial labels, like Black or Asian, and focus on ethnic labels that are really meaningful to people.”

I talked with Morning about the ways in which Harris’s identities reinforce and challenge what many Americans think about race, both those who are excited about the demographic shifts that are shaking up the country and those who fear what those changes mean to their place in society.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How does Harris challenge us to think beyond the old Black-White binary?

This is really a face of a new America that a lot of people haven’t really realized is there. A lot of time when we talk about biracial people, we often imagine people who are Black and White, like Obama, but the reality is different. There are lots of, all kinds of combinations and backgrounds like Kamala Harris certainly in place a like California. Also the fact that her Asian heritage is South Asian, not East Asian. So many people hear Asian and think about people who are Chinese, Japanese, Korean. The Asian population in this county is very diverse, and South Asians make up an important part of that population. So to be represented in this visible way is powerful, and we’ve seen these lovely testimonials from so many people of South Asian descent tweet about this, about how meaningful it is to them. So it brings a new visibility to an important minority population and that I think too often is not given a lot of attention in the public sphere in the United States.

I think it’s also important that people can look past racial labels like Black or Asian and focus on ethnic labels that are really meaningful to people. Racial categories are just huge. Think about the billions of Black people, White people, Asians in the world and the labels that get attached to us, but don’t do a lot to recognize our individuality or our common bonds or our cultural values. Our ethnicities are more meaningful — it’s that level of cultural specificity where people’s attachments lie. It’s something positive to people to understand her as a person of Jamaican and South Asian descent. The word ethnic is often identified with White people; expanding the concept of ethnicity to non-White people who also have cultural heritages important and valuable to them is a positive step for this nation.

Yet many people and the news media seem to more readily identify Harris as Black.

I think the parallel with Barack Obama is instructive. Both Obama and Harris are read as Black, but also as people who are not quite Black or entirely Black. I think they both clearly understood early on and it’s interesting that that they both took steps to get closer to what would be recognize as a classic African American experience, even if that wasn’t their biography. Obama was the son of a Kenyan man, not an African American man from Georgia, and Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican man, not a Black man from Cincinnati. Both have done things to narrow that gap. Obama chose to work with the Black community in Chicago in as organizer, he married into a Black family, and he identifies himself as Black when he takes the census, worships at a Black church. He understood that he would be seen as a Black man, so he carved out a place for himself, to make a home for himself in that Black community.

Harris was raised by an Indian mom. She grew up in Oakland, and her Indian mom carved out for herself and made a place for her family in the African American community. Harris chose to go to Howard University and pledged a Black sorority.

And what about those African Americans who question her allegiance?

She has a lot of genuine elements of her biography that should speak to people who are African American, and I think also some growing and reaching out has to happen on the other side. African Americans, for so long we haven’t realized that we are one group of Black people in this country, the largest group of Black people in this country, but not the only one. There are West Indians, people from Africa. We also have to stretch a bit to understand how our experience is fundamentally important in this county but is just one Black experience and there are others.

While it’s important to honor Harris’s position as the first Black woman on a major-party ticket, it’s equally important to honor her being a person of Asian descent as well because that community has wrongly been treated. Asians are overlooked Americans; they have been since the beginning of immigration to this country. They are always treated as foreign; sociologists refer to them as “forever foreigners.” If her Black heritage makes her an important nod to the past, her Asian heritage is also an important nod to the future; frankly [Asians] are a faster growing community than the Black community. Everyone in this spectrum will have to wrap our minds around the fact that there are multiracial people; we are not all in one box or another, and it shouldn’t be that way.

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