What Kamala Means to Biracial Americans Like Me

Her selection as the vice presidential nominee offers a welcome opportunity to expand our thinking on race and identity. Last week, as I sat down to dinner in an elegant hillside home in the southern Turkish town of Bodrum, two Indian women roared with approval when they learned that Kamala Harris had been selected as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate.

These proud members of the Indian diaspora reveled in seeing “one of their own” finally selected for a chance at the second-highest elected position in the nation. Of course, headline after headline from that same day celebrated Harris as the first “African American VP candidate.”

This disconnect between Harris’ identity as a Black woman and her status as a daughter of both Asia and Africa illustrates the challenges faced by biracial Americans as they navigate a society that once had a one-drop rule to render those of fractional African descent Black and slaves.

Like Barack Obama, to whom she has been compared, Harris’ family story is far different than that of most African Americans. He was the son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas; she is the daughter of a Tamil Brahmin immigrant from India and a Jamaican immigrant scholar. Both were raised primarily by the non-Black sides of their families.

As the son of a Jewish mother and African American father, I’ve repeatedly experienced questions about my Blackness.

Immediately, conservative pundits sought to paint Harris as insufficiently Black. Nothing, after all, is more delegitimizing than questioning the Blackness of someone who’s mixed-race — unless it’s the president questioning whether she was even eligible, because of her immigrant parents, to join the Biden ticket at all (she is).

As the son of a Jewish mother and an African American father, I’ve repeatedly experienced questions about my Blackness. Drake has too — and so has the Duchess of Sussex, who vocally claimed her biracial identity long before she met her Duke. It’s an odd twist to the old one-drop rule: The racist ideology long used to deny the privileges of whiteness is now conveniently repurposed to negate the authenticity of Blackness.

This is why, for biracial folks like myself — roughly 10% of the U.S. population identifies as biracial — Harris’ candidacy offers a welcome opportunity to expand the notions of race and identity beyond traditional binaries. Indeed, were Harris to equally center her Black and Indian heritage on the campaign trail, her candidacy would not just be transformative — it would be flat-out revolutionary. Harris has done this in the past: As was recently reported, she asked one of her aunts back in India to break coconuts for good luck during a particularly contentious race for California Attorney General back in 2010; she won that election by less than 1%.

This revolution in self-presentation by mixed-race politicians is long overdue. We have been here before: Back in 2008, Obama offered the tantalizing hope that he would vocally identify as biracial from the campaign onward. This didn’t happen. While never obscuring his white heritage — his mother was a regular figure in his stump speeches — Obama ran as an African American, identifying as Black from his earliest public writings and throughout both administrations — so much so that he ticked African American on his 2010 Census form rather than opting to mark both Black and white (mixed race or biracial were not options on the 2010 form).

And with a Black wife and two Black kids, Obama easily presented as “Black enough” to avoid an endless barrage of hyper-radicalized scrutiny that could accompany his mixed-race status (though not “too Black” to alienate crucial white voters).

Of course, it’s not that Obama — or Harris — ever tried to deny being biracial. Instead, they allow the language and narrative around them to consistently refer to them as Black or African American, without insisting on giving equal weight to the other side. Of course, explicitly identifying as biracial — cultivating a public image that equally honors their Black and non-Black sides — comes with clear risks. Blacks can feel that mixed-race folks are trying to opt-out of Blackness, while whites are clearly threatened by people of color claiming their spaces as their own. As I’ve often endured, the world is all for intersectionality, except when Black intersects with white and seeks to claim both.

Harris is likely to face such outmoded responses as well. Indeed, within hours of Biden’s announcement, conservative commentator Mark Levin straight-up declared on his show that “Kamala Harris is not an African American,” while former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested, during a Fox News appearance, that Harris’ mixed-race heritage would hobble her efforts to rally Black support.

Of course with a white Jewish husband and a pair of Caucasian stepchildren, Harris’ own life skews far from the Black mainstream; Black women are among the Americans least likely to intermarry. And, yes, Harris did have trouble connecting with Black voters last summer during her failed run for the White House.

But so what! Much like Obama, Harris has made Blackness a core component of her origin story. As Harris has written, her mother “understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters” in the U.S. Harris further affirmed that Blackness when she chose to attend Howard University, the most prestigious historically Black college in America.

From slavery onward, a certain level of racial fluidity has always accompanied the African American experience (faced with forced miscegenation, antebellum Blacks really had no other choice). Nearly two centuries later, Harris’ own journey confirms the validity and vitality of this fluidity in all of its distinctive — and far more liberating — forms.

The question now is whether Harris’ onward journey will follow an Obama-styled model or one more akin to Meghan Markle; will she center her Afro Caribbean ancestry, her South Asian one — or bravely embrace them both on the campaign trail. I, for one, am hoping for the latter. Multiracial Americans are still desperate for role models and a vice president who feels empowered to own her full heritage would be a fantastic place to begin.

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