Kamala Harris is no stranger to conflict. But as the presidential candidate inches her way toward the top of the polls, she has routinely fought off critics who not only challenge her policies, but question her racial identity. Harris, whose immigrant parents came from India and Jamaica, has been bending over backwards to prove her “blackness” to those who challenge it. Harris has been accused of implying she is African American, neglecting her Indian side, and not having lived through a truly “black experience.”
Many multiracial people have faced criticisms similar to the ones being thrown at Harris. As a biracial woman who is half-African American and half-Caucasian, I am occasionally torn by how to self-identify. If I refer to myself as “black,” am I subtly rejecting my Irish heritage? Will I be rejected by the black community because my complexion isn’t dark enough? How many times do I need to be called the N-word before I can convincingly say I’ve experienced being black in America? The internal dialogue can be exhausting, and there is never a right answer.
Challenging people such as Harris on something as inconsequential as having a “black experience” is insulting to all people of mixed cultures. It also puts us on the defense. Thankfully, our society no longer subscribes to the idea that a person must identify as only one race. Even so, identifying as multiracial isn’t always digestible to the general public.
Recently, Harris has opened up about her experience growing up as a person of color. She dealt with federally mandated school busing, attended a historically black college, and joined an African American sorority while she was a student. Some of her recent proposals include investing in black entrepreneurs and increased funding for historically black colleges and universities. But even despite her background and push for ambitious proposals, people on both sides of the political aisle aren’t convinced she’s truly loyal to the black community. Some people in the Indian community have also complained that Harris isn’t doing enough to win their vote.
In June, Donald Trump Jr. shared a post on Twitter that implied Harris was not black enough to be commenting on the struggles of African Americans. The tweet, originally written by conservative commentator Ali Alexander, read, “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican. I’m so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It’s disgusting.”
Trump quickly deleted the post, but not before a wave of tweets went out that revived the debate questioning Harris’ legitimacy as a black American. Recently, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh piled on with the racist attacks. He falsely claimed that Harris and former President Barack Obama are not truly black because they are not direct descendants of slaves or African immigrants. He accused the pair of using the term to get more votes and frame themselves as victims. Obama faced similar gaslighting attacks throughout his presidency. His European heritage was repeatedly called out by critics in order to minimize his experience as a black man and obfuscate his message.
Let’s be clear: Being a direct descendant of slaves is not a criterion for blackness, nor should it be. Because the population of mixed-race Americans is surging around the country, the traditional notions of black identity have become more nuanced. Not all black Americans have dark skin, grew up in low-income communities, marry people with dark skin, or are descended from slaves. If we make these characteristics the criteria for blackness, the number of people who fall into that category is going to drastically decrease over generations.
Harris’ marriage to Douglas Emhoff, a white man, has only added fuel to the claims. The criticism eventually caused Harris to come out publicly in defense of her relationship. “Look, I love my husband,” she told the hosts of the Breakfast Club radio show in February. “He happened to be the one that I chose to marry, because I love him — and that was that moment in time, and that’s it.”
Like Harris, I have uncomfortably laughed off insensitive jokes and snide comments for marrying a white man. Some have viewed it as an attempt to reject blackness. Harris has been accused of doing the same.In politics, however, these criticisms are not just unfair and racist—they’re also effectively strategic. Questioning a candidate’s ethnicity is intended to distract minority voters from the real message and cause them to question the person’s loyalty and authenticity. It’s a calculated technique meant to make minority voters feel deceived. It’s important that voters make an effort not to fall prey to this.
The irrelevant discussion of Harris’ ethnicity will only bring to life a new era of “birtherism.” President Obama spent his entire presidency deflecting comments and conspiracy theories about his true birthplace and citizenship. The rumors were eventually given new life by Donald Trump, who made it his mission to divert the public’s attention from Obama’s agenda and cause some to challenge his right to sit in the Oval Office. The claims eventually became so widespread that Obama had to come out publicly to address them. Even after he was bullied into publicizing his birth certificate, many people still aren’t convinced Obama was a legitimate president. We can’t allow anything like this to happen again.
Harris is a black woman. This is an undeniable, indisputable fact. She also happens to be half-Indian. One heritage does not negate the other. Those questioning Harris’ heritage are putting every other multiracial citizen on trial. How “black” does a person have to be in order to be acknowledged as a person of color? How should biracial people identify? In which communities will they be accepted? Are you considered less black if you marry outside of your race?
Regardless of who a person marries, where they grew up, where they attended school, what their profession is, or which political party they belong to, blackness will always be determined by ancestry. No action, attitude, or behavior can change this fact. No matter her background, Harris has introduced proposals that are aimed at helping various minority groups. Criticizing Harris’ policies and political resume is fair; minimizing her personal experience as a black woman is not. She does not need to prove her loyalty to one race. She just needs to convince the American people she’s the right person for the job.