"Is she or isn’t she?”
Detractors have asked the question repeatedly since the announcement of Sen. Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick. The social media hives are buzzing with chatter about Harris’ so-called lack of “authenticity” as a Black woman. It’s an ongoing conversation, one that never seems to get old. She’s Jamaican, instead of African American, they say. Is that really a shared experience? Her blackness feels more “performed” than lived, added one expert.
This kind of challenge is so common that it’s almost done by rote. But “Is she Black, or isn’t she?” is the wrong question. A better one is, why do we still feel the need to ask? Why are we, as a nation, still so mixed-up about mixed race?
As I wrote in a six-part series series on the topic, research shows multiracial identity looks and feels more fluid for those people born of two or more races. A sliding scale, it sometimes moves, depending. Many factors can have an impact on how multiracial people experience race over a lifetime. That Harris’ mother raised her, together with her sister, Maya, making them a household of women. That many of the activists surrounding her were African American women. Given the relative absence of Harris’ father from her life and their troubled emotional ties, her day-to-day experiences with Black American women were perhaps more formative than her Caribbean ties. That her maternal grandmother had been an activist in India, educating women about contraception. Each stroke of the brush contributes to a unique picture: shades of race blending into a painting about gender; or, perhaps the other way around, depending on who is doing the telling and why.
“I loved that okra could be soul food or Indian food, depending on what spices you chose,” Harris wrote in her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” using her mother’s cooking as an analogy. Still, such fluidity continues to make some diners uncomfortable. Patrons at a soul food restaurant expect stewed or southern fried okra. Not bhindi masala.
And so, Harris, who addressed the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, must endure the checklist. Historically Black college, check. Black sorority, check. Raised by Indian mother, uncheck. White husband, uncheck. The hope is that these deeply personal experiences will balance the ledger in her favor. Surely, they must. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has two Black parents, not one, and yet his skin is lighter than Harris’. Tell me, whose measuring stick should we use to determine the more legitimate of the two in that instance?
If it all sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Ridiculous and painful, but also terribly real and meaningful. The scrutiny is borne of necessity. When you live in a country that is openly and violently hostile to “us” you had better be damn sure you know who “them” is. It’s tempting to fall into the “Is he or, she really Black?” hole.
Even in popular culture, Black writers and producers have wrestled constantly with the myth of Black authenticity. Will, on the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” wondered whether his Uncle Phil was a sellout for being wealthy, while Uncle Phil was surprised that his “ghetto” nephew could play classical piano. The conclusion of Black writers and producers on that show? There is no one way to be Black. Still, they felt the need to ask the question.
Harris has rightly chided those who misunderstand the wide-ranging scope of Black diasporic identity. As America shifts, we will continue to encounter these fluid and multilayered identities more and more on the public stage, as we did with Barack Obama. I often use the example of a young person of say, Nicaraguan and Guyanese descent. An English-speaking Central American native from the Atlantic coast of that country, mixed with sugar plantation formerly enslaved African island-nation — a Black person who is both South American and Caribbean. In other words, the kind of “Black” that blows your mind black, simply because many of us have never seen it before. That is all changing.
In Harris’ case, diasporic Blackness meets the specificity of African American experience in poignant ways that resonate deeply with many. As in her now famous “That little girl was me” story about mandatory desegregation via busing, where she commandeered the June 2019 Democratic Presidential Debate and rightly set Biden in his seat.
The writer and cultural critic Touré, who is a friend of Harris, phrased the dilemma nicely in a recent blog post. “If you try to attach a strict biological definition to Blackness, you’ll get into a thorny tangle fairly quickly,” he wrote. “Stop trying to quantify and contain it.”
Kristal Brent Zook is the author of “Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain” and a professor of journalism at Hofstra University. Follow her @KristalZook.