Kamala Harris and the Issue of Identity and Representation in America

As Kamala Harris has been elected to the office of vice president, we need to think about how her multiracial identity and her political record as an attorney general have shaped the way she represents both Black and South Asian communities.

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People string firecrackers and give thanks at temples in Senator and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s (D- Calif.) ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram in India, celebrating her victory. Biden and Harris’s victory comes with many firsts for the country. Harris is the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian to be elected to the office of vice president. But what exactly does Harris’s multiracial identity mean for Black and South Asian communities?

As a South Asian, I felt obliged to support Harris when Biden appointed her as his running mate, since I wanted Harris to be a prominent voice for South Asians. I was also eager about her embodying a lot of firsts if she were indeed elected to the vice presidency. However, it was wrong for me to think that Harris would be good at representing the South Asian community solely because she is South Asian. After all, merely being part of a community does not mean one can represent that community well. As I delved deeper into learning about Harris, I realized that it is dangerous to support a candidate solely based on sharing a similar background with her.

Though Harris does not frequently talk about the Black and South Asian aspects of her identity, we must recognize that America has a problem with discussing multiracial identity because of the desire to label someone and have the convenience of being able to put them in one category. Multiracial people also have to deal with facing discrimination from the different communities they’re part of, as in the case of Harris, who has been accused by South Asians of not being “South Asian enough” and by Blacks of not being “Black enough.” However, the way the one-drop rule has worked in America and the way that Asians have been portrayed as the model minority while Blacks are seen in America as lower class have led to Harris’s Black identity getting more representation in the media. Harris has even said in her book “The Truths We Hold” that her Indian mother knew that America would view Harris as Black, so Harris was raised to put her Black identity on the forefront, even in her political campaign. Harris can identify however she wants, but instead of allowing her multiracial identity to be a cause of stigmatization, she can use her unique identity to tackle social issues that affect Asian Americans and Blacks in America.

One of the most obvious ways Harris can use her identity is by attempting to end the tensions between South Asians and the Black community. As a South Asian, I stand witness to the anti-Blackness that exists within our community. Even among my family members and family friends, “bad neighborhood” is an interchangeable term for “Black neighborhood.” South Asians often associate Black people with violent crimes, illiteracy, drugs, and gangs. Though interracial and even interreligious marriage is frowned upon, marrying a Black person is especially forbidden for some South Asians. In order to combat the anti-Blackness that exists within South Asian communities, it is necessary for Harris to take advantage of her unique multiracial identity. Harris can do this by speaking widely to the South Asian community about how to deal with anti-Blackness as well as speaking about her own experience dealing with the anti-Blackness she may have faced. However, for Harris to be able to speak to South Asians, it is necessary that they be willing to listen to her and support her; such willingness is probable, since South Asians have widely expressed support of Harris. This approval raises a crucial question: Why is it that South Asians are able to support Harris despite the anti-Blackness that exists within our community? Widespread support of Harris among South Asians is because she has conformed to many of the stereotypes that South Asians approve of. As Nitasha Sharma, an associate professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, said, “[Harris] is highly educated. She is well-dressed. She's married to a nice white man. She's done all the things that Desis approve of. She's not a doctor or engineer, but she did go through law school.” In essence, Harris has had to prove to the South Asian community that despite being Black, she has embodied the model minority myth. Therefore, South Asians are able to ignore their anti-Blackness in the case of Harris but not in the case of the Black community as a whole. Harris can use her platform to assert that the model minority myth is in fact simply a myth and that no one should have to prove themselves to be accepted into a group. The model minority myth creates a separation between Asian Americans and Blacks by portraying Asian Americans as the better minority. Harris can easily break this division by using her own experiences as a Black and South Asian vice president-elect to show that everyone is capable of achieving the same things and that there is no one good minority.

Another problem that Harris can tackle by using her South Asian identity is to include Asian Americans in politics and discussions of race in America. Asian Americans are not included in the “Black and white paradigm” of race that exists in our nation, and yet Asian Americans were the victims of 217 single-bias hate crimes in 2019. Asian Americans are also suffering from discrimination in the workplace. Despite being the largest minority likely to be hired, Asian Americans are least likely to be given executive positions. In order to reduce the discrimination that Asian Americans have to face and in order to make sure that Asian Americans are included in the conversation about race, Harris should take the initiative to use her platform to define Asian Americans as a separate race that is significant in the politics of our nation. She should attempt to enforce laws that end all types of racial discrimination in the workplace and directly address hate crimes that involve an anti-Asian bias. As an Asian American Vice President, Harris can work hard to elevate the role of Asian Americans in politics as well as in the workplace.

I was hoping that Harris would use her multiracial identity to speak for Asian Americans and to end the tensions between Black people and Asian Americans present within our country. But a deeper look at her prosecutorial record made me feel that she may not be successful at embodying the views and taking the action needed to represent both Black and Asian-American communities well. During her time as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, she was not bold about creating police reform and tackling police brutality and police misconduct. In 2015, she “opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers.” In addition to mishandling police conduct and ignoring racial profiling, in 2010, Harris advocated for a truancy law that could make parents face up to one year of jail and fines up to $2,000. Harris even went so far as to appeal the U.S. Central District of California Court’s ruling that California’s death penalty was unconstitutional in 2014. As a senator, Harris has spoken out against police brutality, specifically in the cases of the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and has suggested that policing in America needs to be changed.

Though it may seem like Harris’s views have simply changed, it can easily be suggested that Harris has simply shifted for her own political interests and ambitions rather than to truly achieve justice. Though The New York Times described her as “among the Democrats sponsoring policing legislation that would ban choke holds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants,” one cannot forget Harris’s struggles in the past dealing with police reform in her state as well racial profiling. Police brutality unjustly affects Black communities, and her being part of a community is not enough to do good for that community. Harris is Black, and despite that identity, she was not always successful at advocating for the Black community and was not able to enforce laws that would give Black people equity and protection. As I evaluated Harris’s prosecutorial record, I understood that it was wrong of me to assume that she would be good at representing Asians and Black people. If Harris was unsuccessful at representing the Black community in the past, I could not be so sure that she would be able to represent the South Asian community, my community, well. I came to the realization that representation is not derived from one’s background but instead from one’s will to fight for a community.

Kamala Harris becoming the vice president-elect is truly revolutionary for South Asians, Black people, and women alike, and I felt the impact of the historical moment when Biden and Harris’s victory was announced. However, it was necessary for me to understand that a South Asian background did not mean that Harris would be good for South Asian people. It was necessary for me to evaluate Harris’s prosecutorial record as well as think about what steps she would need to take to represent Asian Americans. I could then understand that Harris needs to make important changes to how she represents herself politically in order to build a platform that can advocate for the rights of South Asians and Black people in America.

Representation is good. It is also not enough. I am glad I am beginning to build an understanding of that.