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Debate over political significance of Harris’s multicultural background spotlights America’s ongoing struggle with multiracial identities

Senator Kamala Harris, presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee, listened during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, US, on Wednesday.
Senator Kamala Harris, presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee, listened during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, US, on Wednesday.Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

The initial headlines announcing Kamala Harris’s candidacy for vice president heralded her selection as the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. But soon, social media was bubbling with talk of another historic aspect of Harris’s selection: She’s also the first Asian-American to be on a presidential ballot in November.

Days into her selection, multiple communities are laying claim to Harris’s milestone moment — and debating the political meaning of her multicultural background. Is her South Asian identity being overlooked? Did her Blackness take center stage for good reason? And why do so many Americans still struggle to talk about multiracial identities?

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“First black AND Asian American woman . . . we don’t have to choose folks,” Representative Grace Meng of New York commented on an Associated Press tweet that referred to Harris as Black alone.

The daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, Harris is the first Black woman, Asian-American, and person of either Tamil or Jamaican descent to be listed on either major party’s presidential ticket. If Joe Biden and Harris prevail in November, she will also be the first woman vice president.

“The importance of representation in politics and especially on the ticket for the highest office in the US cannot be understated,” Renita Miller, an associate dean for access, diversity, and inclusion at Princeton University, said in an e-mail. “Kamala Harris as the first Black and Asian woman Vice Presidential nominee is indeed the definition of a descriptive representative.”

On social media, icons from Padma Lakshmi to Viola Davis posted celebratory gifs.

“Representation matters!” wrote MSNBC analyst Zerlina Maxwell. Another Twitter user, who said she is a Black woman with a Black and South Asian son, replied, “Yes!! I woke up with a smile.”

“DIWALI AT THE WHITE HOUSE ABOUT TO BE LIT,” tweeted communications expert and former political aide Zara Rahim. “HOLI . . . ON THE SOUTH LAWN . . . THE POTENTIAL.”

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Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui also weighed in on Twitter: “As a brown girl who grew up in affordable housing, witnessing @KamalaHarris be named @JoeBiden’s VP pick is a big moment for me personally & professionally. I’ve teared up knowing that black & brown girls everywhere are watching this & thinking ‘I can do that, too.‘ ”

Harris has emphasized that her mother raised her to be a confident Black woman. She attended Howard University and pledged the historically Black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. In her first speech as candidate for vice president, on Wednesday, she highlighted the moment as a milestone for Black women. Harris also embraces her Tamil roots, saying she draws inspiration from her scientist mother, who immigrated from India to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959, and maternal grandfather, a diplomat.

Still, reactions on social media suggested her Indian heritage came as a surprise to many people, and some worried Harris’s status as an Asian-American woman was being overlooked.

When Harris’s sister, Maya Harris, tweeted a congratulatory message calling her “the first black woman to be a major-party vice-presidential nominee,” some Twitter users were quick to amend the message. “She has South Asian heritage as well,” one wrote.

Seher Shah Chowdhury, a 24-year-old Boston resident, tweeted: “i know a lot of the media is going to emphasize @KamalaHarris’s black identity/HBCU history but can we also talk about her being a South Asian American woman and what that would mean for our representation in politics.”

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Chowdhury, who has Bangladeshi heritage and identifies as South Asian American or Desi American, said in an interview she could “count on one hand” the number of high-profile South Asian American politicians.

“How people have been kind of forgetting about her Asian-American identity is reflective of how Asian-Americans are talked about in general in American politics,” she said.

Though half of Indian-Americans thought favorably of Harris in October 2018, many did not know of her Indian background, according to polling conducted by Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside, political scientist who studies Asian-American voters and representation.

The concept of Asian identity in the United States often focuses on East Asians at the exclusion of South Asian heritage, he said, despite the fact that Indian-Americans will soon be the largest group within that demographic. “People need to update their understanding in terms of who Asian-Americans are,” he said.

Scholars also said that the history of race in the United States means that Americans of all races often see Harris, and other multiracial people with Black ancestry, as “only” Black.

“Those who get to claim a multiracial identity and assert it in a way that is read by others usually are people that are not Black,” said Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science at Purdue College of Liberal Arts who researches Black women’s representation. Historically, that notion dates back to slavery, when the “one drop rule” designated people with any African ancestry whatsoever as Black, and thus subject to enslavement.

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Scholars said the effects of the rule persist.

“Maya Harris’s tweet [calling Kamala Harris Black] really is the reality of what it’s like to be multiracial and Black in the United States. It’s that Black is seen as the predominant identity, even if it’s not,” Brown said.

To some, the push to define Harris as an Indian, Asian, or even a biracial woman ignores the modern-day, lived reality that stems from that history.

“Historically, people haven’t been able to hold the fact that Blackness can exist within other identities,” Nylah Burton, a 25-year-old writer based in Denver, said over Twitter. She said she and her family identify as Black partly for that reason, despite being multiracial with roots in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and Trinidad.

Burton also said that brown communities often don’t embrace their multiracial Black members. She echoed a skepticism others expressed online: That Harris, whose most ardent supporters up to this point have largely been Black women, is only being widely accepted as Asian now because of her status as prospective vice president.

“There is this tendency [among non-Black communities of color] to cling to antiblackness and then try to claim people once they reach a certain level of success,” Burton wrote.

Danielle Lemi, a fellow at Southern Methodist University and scholar of representation and multiracial political identity, mentioned another current of frustration with Harris’s candidacy coursing through social media this week: “Just because a politician is from one’s group does not guarantee they’ll meaningfully advocate for the group.”

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Some pointed out that some of her policies, particularly regarding criminal justice, are out of line with the demands of the movement for Black lives that put increased pressure on Biden to select a Black woman VP.

Chowdhury and Burton said Harris’s policy track record should be front and center in any conversation about her candidacy.

Lemi agreed, but she added that Harris’s candidacy nevertheless offers an important opportunity to recognize the immense diversity among Black and Asian Americans — and, perhaps, to build understanding and solidarity between communities.

Ramakrishnan said Harris reflects an American story that needs to be told, one of families made up of people of color from different cultural and racial backgrounds. “I think Harris’s story is not only a biracial story, but it’s also a quintessentially Californian story,” he said, ”one that’s increasingly common in the rest of the country.”


Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.