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The Kamala Harris identity debate shows how America still struggles to talk about multiracial people

Identity is complicated, and she shouldn’t have to choose just one.

Senator Kamala Harris surrounded by reporters.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters after the fifth Democratic primary debate on November 20, 2019.
Paul Saul/AFP via Getty Images
Nisha Chittal is the Chief of Staff at Vox.

The swearing-in of Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States was a historic moment that celebrated other historic firsts: The first Latinx Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, did the honors as Harris’s hand rested on the Bible that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.

In her new role, Harris will break many barriers of her own: She is the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to become the vice president of the United States.

But such boundary-breaking is never without strife. When Harris was nominated in August, her biracial identity prompted much discussion on social and traditional media about her background as the daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and a Jamaican immigrant father. While some South Asian voters were upset that this part of her identity has long been downplayed, others were excited about the historic nature of her nomination and what it represents for South Asian American women and women of color. Meanwhile, some Black voters debated whether she is truly “Black enough,” and far-right critics pushed birther-style arguments, questioning whether Harris is a US citizen and her eligibility for vice president.

But her multiracial identity shouldn’t have been new information. Harris has had a long career in public life: She was a San Francisco district attorney, the California attorney general, a US senator, and ran for the Democratic nomination for president last year. And yet for years, she has primarily been identified as a Black woman in the public eye, with her South Asian identity rarely mentioned in media coverage until fairly recently. Some of this could be a personal choice — a longtime friend of Harris’s told the Washington Post in 2019 that he had only learned she was also of South Asian descent after knowing her for 15 years.

For multiracial people, defining their racial identity in America can be a complex and fraught issue because of other people’s assumptions and expectations. And what the energy expended on debating Harris’s identity tells us is that we still have a long way to go when it comes to talking about multiracial people in America.

Media coverage has long focused on Harris’s Black identity, and discrimination against Black people plays a role in that

When Harris won her Senate seat in 2016, news coverage repeatedly highlighted that she was only the second Black woman elected to the Senate (the first was Carol Moseley Braun, in 1992). But her victory that day also represented another milestone that some of those same news outlets did not mention: She was also the first South Asian American person elected to the Senate.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside and founder of AAPI Data, suggested earlier this year that one of the reasons Harris might be more commonly portrayed as Black in the media is because of America’s history of using the “one-drop rule,” a racist practice that dates back to slavery.

“When you had someone who is the son or daughter of a Black person and a white person in the South, they would have been considered a slave and not a free person, and that legacy continued on through Jim Crow. They would not have the same rights as white people if you had even ‘one drop’ of Black blood. So that legacy is still very powerful; it affects not only how white people or American society in general think of Black folks but also how Black folks think of themselves,” Ramakrishnan told Vox.

Black Americans have historically faced much deeper oppression and systemic racism than Indian Americans, and as Slate’s Nitish Pahwa notes, “the Indian experience is nowhere near as central to American politics and to American life and history as is the Black experience.” Black Americans also face much deeper injustices than any other racial or ethnic group in America: They’re more likely to be killed by police, and at the moment they are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 as well as unemployment and the economic crisis.

Growing up Black in America is also a very different experience from growing up Indian in America, as Indians have frequently benefited from “model minority” stereotypes — the false belief that Asian Americans are smarter, more hardworking, or more successful than other racial and ethnic groups. It’s a trope that has been used as a “racial wedge” between Asian Americans and Black Americans.

A Howard University yearbook page that includes a picture of Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris (bottom row, second from right) in a Howard University yearbook.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Diana Sanchez, a Rutgers University professor who studies multiracial identity in America, noted that research has shown that “when you have Black ancestry in your background, and this is seen as the lower-status group in society, people will tend to categorize you along those lines.” Sanchez added that Harris’s “South Asian identity might be perceived as higher status because of the way discrimination works and some of the positive stereotypes that exist for Asian American groups compared to Black American groups. So she is likely to be categorized as a Black candidate.”

Much of society, especially white society, can look at Harris and perceive her as Black, and she will face discrimination as a result of that, regardless of which culture she might choose to identify with — and that has likely played a big role in how she views herself in the world.

Harris’s background represents a uniquely American melting pot story

In her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold, Harris wrote of how her Indian mother raised her with an appreciation for Indian culture, cooking her daughters Indian food, giving them Indian jewelry, and taking them on trips abroad to visit extended family. But Harris wrote that she was also keenly aware that the world would perceive her and her sister as Black women first and foremost: “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

Harris also made choices that indicated she was leaning more into her Black identity over time: She attended Howard University, one of the country’s most prestigious historically Black colleges, and joined a Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Harris speaks fondly of her time at Howard and often emphasizes her time there in response to critics who question her Black identity.

But that doesn’t mean that her Indian heritage isn’t part of her identity, either. Harris’s late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, has long been a prominent part of her story. Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher who grew up in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, graduated from college at the age of 19 and immigrated to the Bay Area in 1959 to attend graduate school at the University of California Berkeley. There she met Donald Harris, a fellow graduate student who later became a professor of economics.

The couple married and had two daughters; they divorced when Harris was 7 years old, and Harris and her sister were raised primarily by their mother. Gopalan was active in the civil rights movement in Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, marching in protests with her husband and sometimes bringing her daughters. It is the kind of family story that represents an increasingly multicultural, demographically diverse America: two immigrants from different countries who both came to the US to pursue higher education, who then raised two Black and South Asian daughters.

But it seems that for some, Harris’s uniquely American multiracial identity is less the utopian future we’re striving for and more a source of confusion — and sometimes even a justification for racism and suspicion.

The real problem is America still doesn’t know how to treat multiracial people

Pew Research estimates that 6.9 percent of the adult American population is multiracial, and the Census Bureau predicts that the multiracial population in America will triple by 2060. But though this identity group is growing rapidly, many Americans still don’t know how to talk about multiracial people. Americans want to be able to easily label people by race and put them into one box.

Harris herself told the Washington Post in 2019 that when she entered politics, she felt pressure to define herself. “When I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created,” she told the Post. “My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it,” she said.

Sanchez says that multiracial people can face what she refers to as double discrimination, where they experience discrimination from both communities they are members of. In Harris’s case, that leads to South Asians saying she’s not South Asian enough and Black people saying she might not be Black enough. “So there’s all these different sources of discrimination that are affecting the development of your multiracial identity and your experience with it, and that can make it hard to navigate,” Sanchez said.

Many South Asian Americans were excited about Harris’s historic nomination. Pahwa wrote for Slate that while he was conflicted about Harris’s political record, the moment was “undeniably a landmark moment for the South Asian diaspora. No matter how you spin it, it is progress, a bold assertion of the United States’ multiculturalism.”

But Harris has also faced detractors. Indian media has pondered the question of whether Harris is Indian enough, and she has simultaneously been accused of not being “Black enough.” In 2019, accusations swirled on Twitter that Harris was not an “American Black” because her father was a Jamaican immigrant, rather than the descendant of enslaved people (these rumors later appeared to be the work of a coordinated bot campaign, but it was still retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. and spread briefly into the mainstream). Similar attacks on Harris’s Blackness began anew after her VP nomination, with Newsweek publishing an op-ed pushing birther-style questions about her citizenship and eligibility to be vice president, which a top Trump campaign adviser retweeted.

In 2019, Harris described the accusations of not being Black enough as “hurtful” and “challenging,” telling journalist Jemele Hill: “For other people who can’t figure out am I ‘black enough,’ I kinda feel like that’s their problem, not mine. Maybe they need to go back to school to figure it out. And maybe they need to learn about the African diaspora and maybe they need to learn about a number of other things.”

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at Howard University’s commencement ceremony in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2017.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Carole Boyce-Davies, a professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, told Vox earlier this year that the pressure to choose an identity is something uniquely faced by Black Americans with immigrant families. “This is a good time for Americans to think through this question, and particularly since it’s not raised often in the context of white immigrant identities. [White immigrants] just pass and fade into white identities, and nobody knows what their background is.” The pressure to choose one identity over the other, Boyce-Davies said, is “often put on Black subjects, or subjects of color, where people feel you don’t have full allegiance to one identity when really we are all a complex set of identities.”

This is, unfortunately, a familiar situation for multiracial Americans. Over a decade ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama faced similar questions about whether he was “Black enough.” And Harris, who was then the San Francisco district attorney, spoke up in his defense in a San Francisco Chronicle article in 2007, saying: “The conversation highlights the lack of information that people in general have about African American contributions. … That is the added significance of Barack Obama. He is opening up what has been a limited perspective of who is an African American.”

Sanchez explained that multiracial people are often challenged on how they identify — and, as Obama and Harris have proven, will continue to be challenged. “You may choose an identity and people often feel the right to disagree with that,” she said. “There’s a lot of research on identity denial, where multiracial people uniquely encounter interactions where someone told them they can’t identify a certain way for various reasons,” she added.

This is perhaps why Harris has at times deflected questions about how she identifies, saying during a 2019 campaign event, “How do I describe myself? I describe myself as a proud American.”

Meanwhile, for South Asian Americans who wish that Harris highlighted her Indian heritage more, it’s worth asking why they might feel that way. South Asian communities have their own long history with colorism and anti-Black racism. Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of the nonprofit group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), suggested that Harris’s nomination should be seen as “an opportunity to look at the issue of anti-Black racism in our community.” Sridaran added: “The deeply seated anti-Black racism in the South Asian community is not often a welcoming place for anyone who identifies as Black. Confronting that racism should be the priority of the South Asian American community right now, especially given the current movement to expose and eliminate police violence.”

Harris shouldn’t have to choose to be either Black or South Asian

How Harris chooses to identify is ultimately a personal decision, and as a biracial person in America, that is undoubtedly an even more nuanced, complex issue for her to navigate.

As Ronald R. Sundstrom, author of The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, wrote for Vox,Ultimately, it is a mixed person’s prerogative to be fluid in their identity, for them to sometimes hold one, or both, and for that to change over time.”

We’ve seen it before: When one person from a marginalized group breaks barriers and ascends to new heights, they shoulder the weight of their entire community’s expectations. When a woman runs for president, she is expected to represent all women; when a Black person runs for office, they’re under pressure to represent all Black people. And when a woman of color runs for office, let alone a multiracial woman who identifies with two major racial groups, she carries the burden of even more expectations on her shoulders.

But Harris is just one person, and she cannot be all things to all people. She doesn’t need to neatly fit into anybody’s box. And now, her barrier-breaking vice presidency is also a powerful win for representation of multiracial people in America.