The Kamala Harris conversations show we still don’t know how to talk about race

As Joe Biden’s campaign dragged out his running mate pick for weeks, Twitter seemed to have pre-drafted takes ready to go when Biden announced that Sen. Kamala Harris would be his vice president on Tuesday afternoon: from Harris’ spotty record as a prosecutor to Maya Rudolph’s good luck to the impending insufferability of Howard University alumni and AKA sorors.

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The response has been mostly predictable: a mixture of joy at the first Black and Indian American candidate for vice president, skepticism and anger about her past record, and speculation about what groups Biden is trying to court with this pick. However, almost everything about The Discourse points to one thing — newsrooms still don’t know how to talk about race and identity. 

Journalists usually get her biography down correctly: Harris was born to Jamaican and Indian immigrant parents and grew up in a predominantly White area of California. Harris’ identity has never been “hidden.” She graduated from Howard University, where she joined a Divine 9 sorority and has also frequently discussed her mother’s strong influence on Kamala’s life before she passed. (And, you know, her name is Kamala).

Even within these spheres, media outlets have shown they’re still out of their depth when talking about women of color in politics — particularly when it comes to Harris. When a Washington Post journalist (who has since apologized), described the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority calls as “screeching” while detailing the senator’s book event, that small misunderstanding reflected a larger issue about the dominance of White culture in politics. Days after the announcement, a few right-wing tweets and articles alluded to her potential “ineligibility” to be vice president, another iteration of racist birtherism that followed former president Barack Obama as well. While the lie has been thoroughly debunked, politicians of color consistently face unnecessary questioning, even by established media outlets, that “other” them in the press.

Reporters and editors are still confused about her racial identity, possibly stemming from how vocal Harris is about her experiences being Black in comparison to the way she speaks about being Indian American. Most articles I’ve seen don’t know how to handle that. In the lede, somecalled her the first Black woman to get the VP pick, while other newsroomsincluded her Indian heritage as well. Yet others, like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, opted for a strange combination of “first Black woman and first woman of Indian descent” or “of Indian ancestry” respectively.

(Hint: Adding it as an afterthought feels like exoticization: If she identifies as South Asian American and African American, outlets can just write that. No one would write, “… who is of White descent” in that scenario.)

I’ve seen fights on and off social media from other journalists about “what to call her,” an idea that harkens back to antiquated ideas of being mixed-race. Because I’ve dealt with similar issues my whole life, it frustrates me to no end — I’m Black, Mexican and Korean. Both my parents are biracial, but visibly, I present as a light-skinned Black woman. I definitely don’t look Korean, besides the slightly racist, “Oh, you can see it in your small eyes,” something I heard frequently as a child.

Of course, I identify with my mother’s Asian heritage at home. How could I not? We eat galbi and rice while camping or during Christmas, we joined my grandmother for her first visit to South Korea in 50 years and I struggle to learn more Korean words on my own time. I certainly grew up with more Korean American family members and East Asian classmates around than I did Black family and classmates.

As I’ve had more conversations with other Asian students in college, these lived experiences sometimes “allow” me a place at the table and sometimes they don’t. The message I’ve received: You’re Black and experience the world as Black, so you don’t know what it’s like to be Asian. While I disagree with many aspects of that framing, I do understand the perspective. I have had to be cognizant of not taking up space, a distinction I’ve fine-tuned over the past few years. 

But the one aspect I constantly push back on is the narrative that mixed race Asians (particularly White and East Asian) have a ton of privilege in America. While this can definitely be true in many ways, that falls apart when the person in question does not have one White parent. In one of the most diverse countries on Earth, we have built up the idea that biracial means “half-White, half-POC.” And statistically, that does hold weight — just not for women like Kamala and myself.

I cannot speak for Harris, but projecting some of my experience onto her, I could understand why she does not speak about being Indian American as frequently as she does being Black. There are unspoken rules that many mixed people pick up over the years and internalize, including the trope that we have to “choose.” That narrative has persisted in popular culture and media since slavery, where the ability for African Americans to pass as White held strict social implications. Today, we could feel 100 percent Black and Asian on the inside, but on the outside, we live in a world where the “Big Decision” to pick a side dominates the mixed narrative.

There is something so specific that I wish people understood — you can feel one way on the inside, but also know your place in different spaces. It’s not just about code switching, but something unique and complicated about a fuller and situationally fluid racial hierarchy that many non-White multiracial people have learned to navigate over the years. The news I’ve read doesn’t even afford Harris that chance.

Though we’ve passed that particular era of racialization, it doesn’t surprise me that journalists are currently having conversations of little value about Harris’ race. I am just as Korean as I am Black, but my experiences as the former are diminished because of my looks. I have learned to accept the complexities and effects of American racialization that directly contrast the way I grew up. 

All of the research I’ve done about how racial identities are perceived by other Americans is instantly negated when I log onto Twitter or talk to some of my friends about her nomination. Even among journalists with large followings, including reporters of color, the rush to “debate” Harris’ race shows that our national thinking is still rooted in binaries and assumptions. 

On and offline, South Asian communities, Black communities and multiracial people all have different, nuanced takes on the senator’s candidacy, further stratified by gender, age, class and politics. None of these communities are monoliths, but media coverage implies that they are, four years after the industry wrestled with that issue in covering the last election.

Our job as journalists is to talk to those communities and see what this representation does or does not mean, not to perpetuate our own flawed understandings of race. There are plenty of articles that delve into Harris’ Indian roots or Black roots separately — a few opinion pieces have discussed this by now, but I have yet to see a truly nuanced news article that deals with both. Because she is both.

I’ve seen some say that we’re focusing too much on her race or gender at the moment — that we’re sanitizing her image to be more in line with a false idea of representation in politics and her past stances are the most important thing to contend with. But news coverage absolutely needs to be specific and talk about both in a way that informs its audiences, rather than fetishizing or playing into racist tropes. 

Harris is one of the first multiracial politicians I can think of that doesn’t have a White parent.  Outlets that have done a poor job hiring reporters that actually reflect the country are already doing a poor job of describing her identity with nuance. As the percentage of mixed race people in the United States steadily rises, journalists need to be conscious about how they let stereotypes and assumptions affect their coverage of Blasians and other multiracial people. 

If they don’t learn how to appropriately report on Harris, one of the most visible politicians for at least the next few months, without relying on misogynoir, there is little hope that millions of other Black, South Asian and multiracial people can expect proper coverage. 

Above all, they need to ask about — and listen to — what Kamala says about Kamala.

Marissa Martinez is a senior at Northwestern University, and is the current editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.

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