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Jeneé Osterheldt

Kamala Harris is a Black woman: It’s not complicated

Senator Kamala Harris
Senator Kamala HarrisDrew Angerer/Getty

Representation does matter. I was teary-eyed when she gave her speech last week, and noted Joe Biden “takes his place in the ongoing story of America’s march toward equality and justice, as only — as the only — as the only, who has served alongside the first Black president and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.”

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She didn’t erase her South Asian identity by noting she’s a Black woman. Black women can be South Asian, too. Black women can be Puerto Rican, like La La Anthony, on the cover of Essence magazine this month. Black women can have white mothers, like Alicia Keys. Black women can look like Mariah Carey, Rashida Jones, and Soledad O’Brien. Multiculturalism is real.

Because, yes, Black women like me, can be biracial, too.

When I call myself Black it does not erase my white mother. It does not change my roots or who I am. Blackness is expansive. The diaspora is diverse. And in this country, it is rare for an everyday Black person with a non-Black parent to have the privilege to walk into a non-Black room and be fully accepted by that other side without explanation or pause.

And Harris’s mom Shyamala Gopalan, a lifelong activist, knew that to be true.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris writes in her recently published autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

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Black. It’s not a bad word, you know. It’s alright for us to be Black without whataboutism. You don’t need to limit it for the narrow and racist definitions of what Black American looks like.

Black girls, brown girls, and any girl who ever thought she couldn’t be whatever she wanted to be in a system set up to shrink her, can see themselves and the infinite possibilities in a ballot bearing the name of Kamala Harris.

And her South Asian roots undeniably had an impact on the candidate she’s become. When I saw what it meant to my friend Meena, a self-proclaimed “Blindian” and proud, Black woman, I wished we could hug.

I understand people want to feel seen. They want their voices heard. They deserve space.

It’s not inaccurate to call Harris a Black American and Indian American woman. It’s factual to call her biracial. But what is hard to understand is why people get offended when she calls herself Black, why they demand she be labeled otherwise, why folk on Twitter pushed back when her sister called her Black, and why people like to say things like, she’s not “just Black.”

Even worse are the birthers who come for her citizenship and the detractors who insist she’s not Black enough or Black at all on the basis of her not being a descendant of slaves.

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Honey, the woman was born in Oakland and raised in the Bay. She is an American citizen. As for her dad being an immigrant from Jamaica somehow distancing her from slavery? Reminder: Jamaica was a major artery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Harris grew up with the traditions of her South Asian family while living her best, Black life. She is a graduate of the mecca of historically Black colleges: Howard University. She pledged the oldest and most-celebrated Black sorority in the Alpha chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

So all of this debating over whether she is this or that, all this talk about her not having to choose, the media being blamed for calling her Black all these years? Stop it. Listen to people when they tell you and show you who they are. Harris identified herself.

She told you, in her own words, many times, that she is a Black woman, a daughter of immigrants, a woman raised by her Hindu mother. The truth, like Blackness, can contain multitudes.

Harris, who is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention, ran for president last year. The fervor to identify her was not aggressively present the way it is now that she’s on the ballot. The grotesque determination to birther her, much like they did Barack Obama, the first Black president, who is also biracial, was not there last year. The need to make her blackness less Black, because for some people, a palatability comes with biracial people, was not there.

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What’s different? She is officially headed for the vice presidency. And she’s ready. If we’re being honest, it’s likely we’ll call her Madam President one day.

I wish we were talking about policy, debating her prosecutorial past, digging into voter suppression, and emphasizing the vital importance of evicting the occupant of the White House.

But Harris is a Black woman. So racism and sexism and xenophobia became the conversation.

Before we can even get to the next chapter of the campaign and dive into the blueprint for the future, this country had to dissect her Blackness and the measurement of it. They had to own parts of her and define her.

We couldn’t start with policy. America began with its favorite thing to govern: identity politics.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee