Understanding Kamala Harris, the Great Multiracial (Black) Hope

Democratic U.S. vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris poses for a selfie during a Thurgood Marshall College Fund event at the JW Marriott February 07, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Though the last few months of political theater have certainly been terrifying, they’ve also provided ample material for those interested in engaging with the construction and perception of multiraciality in the United States. The race discourse surrounding Senator Kamala Harris arose in August when Democratic candidate Joe Biden selected her as his running mate, and it has quickly morphed from a mainstream conversation about the possibility of a Black woman president to a resurgence of the hope and change narrative that characterized President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Multiraciality is a central component of Harris’s candidacy in ways that it wasn’t for Obama: After all, being a multiracial child of immigrants bolsters a narrative of “futurity.” But others have observed that perhaps the only way a nonwhite person could make it onto a major party ticket is to be multiracial and therefore considered racially palatable.

By feeding a mainstream liberal belief that multiculturalism promotes inclusion, a candidate who embodies the crossing of racial boundaries holds even more value in the midst of a current administration that rejects diversity and inclusion training and dog whistles to white supremacists. The debate over the significance of Harris’s candidacy is certainly a result of gendered logics about who’s multiracial and how self-identified multiracial people feel about their gendered relationship to Blackness. Perhaps though, this debate is due to the fact that Harris is considered a “dual-minority” multiracial who’s not able to claim a so-called “high-status” white identity. Though Harris has never hidden her multiracial background (and the press itself has routinely noted it), her multiracial identity was less foregrounded during her presidential campaign than it has been in the days and weeks following her formal VP nomination.

In particular, Harris’s Asianness became a more significant part of her historic narrative after her nomination. An article about Harris’s Tamil heritage trended the day after Biden’s announcement, though there was no such trending topic about her Jamaican family. In a CNN roundtable preceding the vice-presidential debate between Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, Jake Tapper referred to her as a “trailblazer” for women, particularly Black women and South Asian women, and another panelist noted she symbolizes the “racial majority” of younger Americans. Articles have called her “the face of America’s demographic shift” and “fueled by optimism”—headlines and themes that echo the enthusiasm and effusive praise leveled at Obama in 2008. There’s been such a deluge that fact checkers have corrected social media users who interpreted various past and present headlines that refer to Harris singularly as “Indian American” and “Black” as not being evidence of her changing her race over time.

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This controversy not only shows the media’s inconsistent references to Harris’s racial identity but it also illustrates the public’s confusion regarding multiracial identity patterns (which have been found to shift over time). In August, I noted on Twitter that while Obama was repeatedly framed as the first Black—rather than first biracial or multiracial Black—Democratic candidate and then president, Harris is seemingly two people: the first Black woman vice presidential candidate and the first South Asian vice presidential candidate. The separation of her milestones discursively separates her as a person. Harris often describes herself as a Black woman, only sometimes invoking her mother’s Indian immigrant story on the debate stage or in speeches (she does, however, note her accomplishments as the first South Asian senator as part of her Senate biography). She has intentionally avoided problematic model minority stereotypes like presidential candidate Andrew Yang and only briefly played up her Desi identity with targeted social media content, particularly the 2019 viral cooking video wherein she prepared masala dosa with Mindy Kaling. (She seemed to have no issues, however, perpetuating ugly stereotypes about Jamaicans with her pithy comments about her marijuana use.)

The press, political opponents, and the public have been increasingly interested in her story as a child of a South Asian immigrant post-nomination, with several stories explaining Harris’s parents time at the University of California, Berkeley, the caste system in India and how Harris’s family fits into it, and even her grandfather’s political career. Alternatively, Harris’s Blackness is not only stated and visible in her appearance—depending on who’s looking but is signified by aspects of her biography such as having attended the historically Black college, Howard University, and maintaining membership in a historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Harris touts her parents involvement in the Civil Rights Movement—cheekily noting her participation in marches from her stroller—and her college years were shaped by post-1960s Black activism. Her perception as a (multiracial) Black woman is only helped by Maya Rudolph’s portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live, both due to Rudolph’s history of playing Black public figures (Michelle Obama, Beyoncé) and the fact that Rudolph is a multiracial Black woman herself.

Whereas Obama discussed selecting Black as his racial identity on the Census and he married an unambiguously Black woman, solidifying his Black “authenticity,” friends and I have discussed whether Harris’s white husband and stepchildren affects her perceived Blackness or not. Political media consistently noted Obama’s Black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother but rarely discussed him as anything other than an African American candidate whose white family gave him intimate and insider knowledge of how to unite Americans (a multiracial savior narrative Obama also relied on). Media focused on his father’s absence and career ambition while expressing concern that Obama’s narrative minimized his white mother’s life. Still, President Bill Clinton called Obama “a 21st-century incarnation of the old-fashioned American dream” claiming his “achievements are proof of our continuing progress toward the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams.” The notion of long held dreams being fulfilled continues to shape Harris’s political identity, most evident in her 2019 memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (eerily a combination of Obama’s Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope).

Overwhelmingly, it’s clear that Harris is seen by many people as Black first, multiracial or not.

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The post-racial society allegedly ushered in by Obama’s election has been thoroughly debunked by not only Obama’s eight years in office but also the way it bolstered a Trump presidency; Harris now navigates projections of hope—“forces us to look beyond Black and white”—and her own statements that “we” have the “ability to believe in what can be, unburdened by what has been.” That Harris is Biden’s running mate further situates her as Obama’s political successor, especially when they campaign to draw Black voters together. Lost in the “Harris as inheritor of Obama’s legacy” narrative is that Harris is Obama’s contemporary. However, with positive press comes racism and sexism as well. Within days of the announcement of her historic nomination, the political discourse shifted with anti-Black and anti-immigrant attacks. Trump renewed his birther arguments and several of his acolytes publicly accused Harris of “not being African American” because she has Jamaican and Indian parents and her “ancestry doesn’t go back to slavery,” illustrating a clear failure of understanding not only of how race is constructed but how diasporic Blackness in the Americas even came to be.

Following the vice-presidential debate, Harris was referred to as “Hillary Clinton in Blackface” by a pastor on Fox News and admonished across social media and conservative media for not controlling her facial expressions. Overwhelmingly, it’s clear that Harris is seen by many people as Black first, multiracial or not. What remains to be seen is whether there will be another discursive turn should the Biden-Harris ticket be successful in November. Will her election as vice president open the floodgates for another false “post-racial” moment in the mainstream social and political imagination? Will more multiracial political candidates emerge? Will the growing self-identified multiracial population feel represented by such figures? Many liberals cling to Obama as a cypher for “when America was good” and for a lot of voters, this goodwill has transitioned over to the Biden-Harris ticket. Even as Biden and Harris are framed as the lesser of two political evils by critics, Harris signifies hope for some disenchanted people in the United States. Whether she lives up to the hype (and whether the public will be satisfied with words of hope and change that don’t always match up with actions) is yet to be determined.

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by Dr. Shantel Gabrieal Buggs
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Shantel Gabrieal Buggs is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Florida State University. Her research explores race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships.