Understanding Kamala Harris, the Great Multiracial (Black) Hope

This is a repost from Bitch Media. I am reposting my pieces from that platform to this blog due to the fact that Bitch Media closed in 2022. In the event that the platform no longer archives their written work, it will remain here on my personal blog. This piece was originally published on November 2, 2020.

Kamala Harris, a light-skinned Black woman with short, brown hair, poses for a selfie with two Black women flanking her on each side

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.

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).

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.

Yay, Us? In the World of “mixed-ish,” Colorblindness Is the Same as Anti-Racism

This is a repost from Bitch Media. I am reposting my pieces from that platform to this blog due to the fact that Bitch Media closed in 2022. In the event that the platform no longer archives their written work, it will remain here on my personal blog. This piece was originally published on December 12, 2019.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays Paul, a white man wearing a burgundy flowy shirt, and Tika Sumpter plays Alicia, a Black woman in a jean shirt and a curly afro, in mixed-ish

Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Paul, left, and Tika Sumpter as Alicia in mixed-ish (Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandless)

There was muted excitement from critics and fans of Kenya Barris’s -ish universe when mixed-ish, the second spinoff from its origin series, black-ish, began airing on ABC in September 2019. As a multiracial woman and a scholar who studies mixed-race people and families, I also felt unsure about how watchable mixed-ish would be, especially after the show’s trailer trafficked in clear clichés. That uneasiness has tempered for critics, who’ve called the show “a heartwarming family comedy with built-in lessons about race and the perception thereof” that isn’t “afraid to make its characters dig into uncomfortable places, face their internalized biases and interrogate what being biracial means.” ABC has also ordered a full season, but I’m still on the fence. 

Reviews of the pilot consistently noted the show’s clumsy approach to race, namely its reliance on contrasting a colorblind, post-racial commune with the oppressive suburbs full of racial stereotypes (or what feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls controlling images) and the perpetuation of a tired narrative of multiracial exceptionalism. Still others have lamented the show’s saccharine approach to race in contrast to black-ish’s more nuanced takes on a number of social issues, including colorism. While these critiques are deserved (Mariah Carey’s catchy theme song repeatedly extolls that love is “all we need to be free” and “yay, us!”—the “us” presumably being multiracial people and/or families), I’ve found it interesting that mixed-ish still relies on problematic racial and gender politics to motivate its tension and humor.

As Shannon Miller noted in a review for the AV Club, assimilating into mainstream culture is realistic and relatable enough to be the basis for a show; after the Johnsons are forced to flee the commune they call home, Alicia (Tika Sumpter), Rainbow’s dark-skinned, natural hair-wearing, hippie clothes-rocking mother, becomes the voice of racial reason when her white husband, Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is critical of how she changes her appearance for a new job at his father’s law firm. She reminds him that he doesn’t have to change himself outside of the commune “because you can be how you are anywhere in the world.” Alicia notes, “I’m a Black woman. It’s different for me and it’s different for our kids.”

This revelation comes after an entire episode where Black characters are framed as inherently antagonistic: Alicia’s sister, Denise (Christina Anthony), tells Rainbow (Arica Himmel), Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris), and Johan (Ethan William Childress) they look like “a runaway house slave” with their natural hair, and approaches them with hair grease and hot comb in hand. There’s also the much-discussed lunchroom scene where Bow, Johan, and Santamonica are accused of being “weirdos” because they’re mixed-race, and they’re forced to choose between sitting on the Black and white “sides” of the cafeteria. Later episodes maintain this dynamic; in “The Warrior,” Bow is pitted against an aggressive Black teen girl who teams up with a white girl to bully her after she refuses to take a side when the Black teen is unfairly accused of theft.

In “Love Is a Battlefield,” Alicia and Denise get into a fight over what Bow should use to represent authentic Blackness in a class project about representing her cultures. At one point, Denise even tells Alicia, “Excuse me for wanting to whoop your barely Black ass!” an exchange that Bow refers to as “Black on Black crime.” Though this episode illustrates the difference between how white people and Black people arrived in the United States, “Black culture” is framed as complicated and unclear while “white culture” is straightforward and easily understood, a juxtaposition that’s made more irritating by Paul’s father Harrison (Gary Cole) attempting to compare the trans-Atlantic slave trade to “legal” Scottish immigration.

When Alicia criticizes Harrison for misunderstanding slavery, Paul attempts to appease her by patting her hand and saying, “I’m so sorry for that my possibly Nubian queen.” Even a Sadie Hawkins dance at Bow’s school in “All She Wants to Do is Dance” becomes a cause for concern, with Denise spending the episode worried about Bow asking a white boy to be her date and Alicia being concerned that Paul may have a fetish for Black women. These kinds of iffy narratives around race, gender, and class abound in the show, particularly when Alicia reminds her white spouse of the realities of being (read as) Black in the United States while reinforcing how the family’s time on the commune consisted of “no racism” and “no sexism.”

We learn in the pilot that Paul dropped out of Berkeley Law school to “protest the glass ceiling of classism” (it’s unclear what the show means by this) while Alicia graduated because “Black people always need a backup plan.” After Harrison recruits Alicia to work for his law firm because she has the “legal chops to become the son I never had” her husband implies she’s betraying their values by trading in her loose hair for a tight bun and her flowy skirts and blouses for boxy suits, though his father essentially demanded these changes to her appearance. Paul’s racist father frames Alicia’s efforts to support her family as masculine, while her husband perceives her actions as morally deficient, sarcastically quipping that she is “setting a great example” and engaging in call-and-response with their children as a subtle dig: “Who conforms? Capitalists!”

Meanwhile, Bow perceives Paul as the parent who’s “truly committed” to their commune values because he continues pursuing agriculture, though he’s repeatedly failed to build a working greenhouse. The tension between Paul and Alicia plays out further in the season, as Paul falls into a homemaker role—waving off his kids and wife amid a sea of white suburban housewives—and Alicia faces significant racism and sexism at work. Denise predictably calls Paul’s masculinity into question, saying he’s “wasting perfectly good whiteness” by being a stay-at-home father and that “Black women don’t get down with ashy men or men without jobs.” Denise’s quips motivate Paul to use his whiteness to get a job. Incomprehensibly, he fails miserably, literally telling employers to hire him because he’s a white man— a gross misinterpretation of Denise’s jest that his qualifications are that he’s white (she also seriously noted that he had a college degree so he’d “be fine”).

The show intends to frame Paul’s struggle as comedic, but it makes no sense that a privileged white man with a bachelor’s degree who attended Berkeley Law would have zero clue about how to leverage his skills into a job. My discomfort with the show’s approach to race grew when Alicia compares Paul’s employment struggles and questioning of his own identity to the ostracism she and their kids encounter. Alicia equates the kids feeling different as biracial kids (facing “two racist fronts”) and Paul feeling different because he doesn’t know his place outside of the commune. The show even contrasts doors being slammed in Paul’s face with Alicia daydreaming about “going ghetto” on racist and sexist coworkers by yelling at them in African American Vernacular English, taking off her earrings and handing them to Denise, and clapping for emphasis during a daydream sequence. That we are supposed to laugh at—and find heartwarming—a white man struggling to find employment and eventually finding happiness in his place as homemaker is a tough sell. It’s even tougher considering that there’s nothing groundbreaking about this decision, as this isn’t even pop culture’s first attempt to use a husband’s failings in a marriage with a much more accomplished wife as a source of humor.

Seth Meyers’s 2019 standup special, Lobby Baby, features him performing jokes from the perspective of his wife, all of them noting his own incompetence when it comes to raising their children and being able to do something as simple as locating yogurt in the refrigerator. Reinforcing how white people—affluent white men in particular—are allowed space to be mediocre while people of color must be exceptional is frustrating fodder for a comedy in 2019, especially one in which the Black mother states that her biracial kids are facing racism from the white and Black kids at their school. The show’s insistence on the commune “bubble” as raceless and colorblind, in contrast to a blatantly racist real world, fails to acknowledge that having no explicit racism and being anti-racist are two separate things; even Paul can’t resist telling everyone his wife is Black as though that is an achievement in of itself.

Though many Black multiracial actors have landed iconic roles as Black characters, there’s still a dearth of pop culture with multiracial characters who contend with what that multiraciality means socially and politically. Despite mixed-ish’s penchant for leaning into tragic narratives (especially as Bow feels left behind by her siblings who choose between their school’s Black and white students and take on exaggerated Black affect in dress and speech) there’s also a lot of potential for integrating analysis of multiracial experiences within a broader set of racialized experiences, which is best demonstrated by the “Let Your Hair Down” episode. Johan wants to don “Black” hairstyles, so Paul and Harrison take him to a Black-owned barbershop, where he is turned away because the barbers don’t know how to style his grade of his hair. Johan’s frustration boils over when his Black peers tease him over Paul’s poor attempt to put Stevie Wonder-inspired “corn rolls” in his hair.

In the voiceover, Bow notes that mixed-race Black men overcompensate when their Blackness, and therefore, their masculinity, is threatened. This is a really important observation, as research on multiracial men is fairly limited due to many mixed-race men rejecting a mixed-race/biracial/multiracial label more often than women. But these kinds of points are few and far in-between. Even as mixed-ish reflects familiar aspects of my childhood, there’s still much to be desired. (I remain particularly confused by the fact that no Black girl or woman in Rainbow’s life, including her aunt, her mother, or even the school bully, tells her she needs wrap her hair to maintain her silk press!). My hope is that mixed-ish continues interrogating how it presents race and gender as intertwined identities and social positions and considers more thoughtfully the ways they’re used as sites for humor.

Racial (Dis)Harmony: The Overestimated Post-racial Power of Meghan Markle

This is a repost from Bitch Media. I am reposting my pieces from that platform to this blog due to the fact that Bitch Media closed in 2022. In the event that the platform no longer archives their written work, it will remain here on my personal blog. This piece was originally published on December 1, 2017.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry

Photo credit: Twitter/newsjsBW

This week, the engagement of American actress Meghan Markle to British royal Prince Harry set social media ablaze.

Race is at the center of this internet firestorm: Markle is biracial, with a Black mother and white father. As a Black and white mixed-race woman who studies multiracial identity and interracial relationships, the online debates over Markle and her fiancé have been both perplexing and unsurprising. Over the last year, Markle’s racial background has drawn negative press in Britain. Last November, Prince Harry publicly called out the barely veiled racism and sexism in the media coverage of their relationship. Despite this treatment, their engagement is viewed as an opportunity to change what it means to be British and royal, with American fans celebrating a “real Black princess” who will bring #BlackGirlMagic to the royal family and the seemingly stale royal wedding traditions. Several essays have been written about what Markle’s presence means for the British monarchy and the broader racial politics of the West.

Hiding under the surface of the more hopeful pieces—namely Afua Hirsch’s argument that their union will alter race in Britain forever—is an assumed post-racial exceptionalism often projected onto mixed-race people and interracial couplings. As British comedian Gina Yashere noted in a Channel 4 roundtable interview, Markle is “not exotic” and “not from a tribe in the Amazon,” but is merely “an American.” The thread of simultaneous exoticness and mundaneness that permeates the discussion of Markle, as well as the suggestion that her marriage to Prince Harry will be Britain’s “Obama moment,” implies that multiracial people can foster racial harmony by merging supposedly disparate racial backgrounds. In my own research, I have referred to this framing around mixed-race women as the construction of an utopic subject: a figure that embodies an idealized racial future where race is no longer relevant, presumably achieved through interracial sex, marriage, and procreation.

This notion is best summed up by the iconic November 1993 TIME cover story featuring the computer-generated “Eve,” the so-called new face of America. Within the contradictory logics of alleged multicultural societies like the United States and the United Kingdom, Markle is exotic by virtue of her Blackness and her racial ambiguity. Yet she also is framed as unremarkable for these same reasons; for some, Markle’s Blackness is nothing to celebrate because she’s part of a Eurocentric-beauty-standard conforming, biracial-identifying package. Yashere’s comments also call attention to the ways Markle’s biracial background has been framed as inherently radical; her infiltration of the white establishment—the literal figureheads of the British Empire and colonial power—is (jokingly?) viewed by some as an intentional undermining of whiteness.

Yet British academics have suggested that Markle will not have the opportunity to figuratively shake the table because she will likely be pressured to avoid foregrounding her biracial identity and pass into whiteness. There is also the uncomfortable fact that African and Caribbean nations are still suffering from the colonial legacies of the British and other European powers; given these legacies, is it even reasonable to expect Black people in the diaspora to celebrate this marriage? While Markle has yet to explicitly make any claims that connect her race to the future of Britain, her 2015 Elle essay is telling. Within it, she notes the pressure from her teacher to identify solely as white, since “that is what she looks like” and her subsequent confusion since she envisioned her mother being hurt by that choice. Her adamant embrace of a biracial, rather than Black, identity has been met with joy from some mixed-race people (who feel that biracial people are underrepresented in media) and ire from some Black Americans who feel that she is either distancing herself from Blackness or that she is just more of the same light-skinned, normative representation that Hollywood has provided for decades. Others question whether marrying a royal is representation at all.

It is unlikely Markle will ever hold the title of princess or queen, given that Prince Harry is now fifth in line to throne; instead, she will be named a Duchess once Harry receives his title on their wedding day. Plus, Markle is hardly the first Black or mixed-race woman, let alone the first American, to wed royalty. So why has her engagement inspired such strong reactions? Thanks to the scourge that is normative gender-binary socialization, many young girls and women are inundated with popular culture images and stories that privilege a princess fantasy, wherein they get their heteronormative happily ever after with the handsome man of their dreams. Disney has based much of its business model on selling the princess narrative, slowly diversifying its roster of cinematic princesses with the likes of Jasmine, Tiana, Moana, and Mulan (who was not royalty and never married a prince). Though Tiana was celebrated as a Black Disney princess, even her portrayal drew critique because she’s a frog for the majority of the film. While it’s easy to chalk up the excitement over Markle’s engagement to a need for levity and joy in such dark times, it also illustrates the investment in even surface-level representation and the continued power of the notion of the princess, particularly the idea that joining an establishment like the British royal family is an achievement on its own.

Meghan Markle

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Meghan Markle (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The underlying tension regarding skin color privilege and beauty aesthetics further complicates this notion of representation. Rachel Zane, Markle’s character on Suits was a biracial paralegal-turned-lawyer who made visible the workplace experiences of women of color; however, representation in scripted media is not necessarily transferrable to a royal wedding. The true representative value of Markle’s engagement is that it provides a high-profile case of what interracial relationships can look like for mixed-race people. Despite the attention paid to the growing mixed-race population in the United States, it is uncommon to see romantic relationships involving multiracial people reflected in pop culture. Advertisements featuring interracial couples or families continue to draw backlash, and even Markle noted the importance of her parents combining doll sets for her so that she could have a doll family that looked like her own.

Yes, there are a number of mixed-race actors and actresses that play romantic love interests; many of these characters, however, are written as monoracial. This is especially the case with a majority of films and television shows that feature Black women as the protagonists; actresses like Halle Berry, Paula Patton, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Zendaya, and Amandla Stenberg perpetuate an image of Black women as only light-skinned. Even the social science research is limited in its understanding of the relationship practices and experiences of mixed-race adults, though some online dating research suggests that just being mixed with white increases a person’s desirability and attractiveness. My own research indicates that there may be a tendency among mixed-race women to seek white partners, a trend some scholars conclude is a result of the “honorary whiteness” some multiracial people have access to.

For multiracial women who are unambiguously women of color, the quality of their dating experiences differs significantly from women who are more white presenting. In fact, women who are mixed with Black and who are darker-skinned end up performing extra work to “vet” potential partners and determine if they are worth dating based on racial politics. Thus, Markle and Prince Harry provide a reference point for those who do (or don’t) see value in interracial relationships, but also give mixed-race people in interracial relationships a way to see themselves. The relevance of such visibility seems greater at present, given the waves of white nationalist sentiment that demonize such pairings. While it would be irresponsible to think that this marriage will directly result in any substantive social change, it is also important to not dismiss the power of symbols, no matter how surface level they may be.