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Calling Kamala Harris a 'Black woman' is half right and fully misses the point

Calling Kamala Harris a 'Black woman' is half right and fully misses the point

Calling Kamala Harris a 'Black woman' is half right and fully misses the point
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By Niral Sharma  Aug 12, 2020 5:59:45 PM IST (Updated)

Kamala Harris is proud of her partial Asian heritage. Why then should the focus be only on one half of her racial identity?

US Presidential candidate Joe Biden naming Indian-American Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-president pick came as little surprise. Harris’s selection is historic and comes with many firsts:

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  • Harris, whose father is of Jamaican origin, is the first African-American to run for VP on a major party’s ticket.
  • Born to an Indian-origin mother, she is also the first Indian-American to run for vice-president.
  • The list of such achievements doesn't end there. Harris is only the third woman to run for VP (after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro and Republican Sarah Palin). Harris was the first Indian-American to run for US president last year before she suspended her campaign in December, citing lack of funds.
    In 2017, she took oath as US Senator from California, the second African-American woman and the first South-Asian senator in history.
    Despite all that she is, has been or will be, her selection for VP remained limited to the idea of a black making it big in American politics.
    “Joe Biden picks Kamala Harris as running mate, first black woman,” said Associated Press, an American not-for-profit news agency. “Will Kamala Harris be America's first black, female president?” read the headline of Independent, a British online newspaper. The list goes on. The announcement started trending on Twitter with #WinWithBlackWomen hashtag.
    "It is common journalistic practice to note pioneering facts about prominent public figures — the first woman this, the first black that, the first Latino whatever, the first openly gay something or other. It’s either a sign of social progress or “political correctness.”," notes an article by the Poynter, a website that writes on journalism.
    The emphasis is thus understandable, considering that – in Harris’s own words: “Black people have been treated as less than human in America”. But if noting social progress or underlining achievement of an individual from a smaller community is the idea, by ignoring the fact that Harris is half Indian/Asian is undermining the same notion.
    The report by Poynter notes that “Harris is proud of her partial Asian heritage”.
    Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a Tamilian. Born in Chennai, Gopalan was a well-known breast cancer researcher. She moved to America in the 1960s. The senator’s father, Donald Harris, is a renowned economist, who teaches at Stanford University.
    Harris' parents separated when she was a child.
    "My mother understood very well she was raising two black daughters," Kamala wrote about her and her sister Maya in her 2018 autobiography The Truths We Hold.
    According to the Washington Post article last year, "Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African-American life."
    Like former US president Barack Obama, a mixed-race heritage has helped Harris reach a larger audience. In fact, a 2009 piece by Aziz Haniffa based on an interview with Harris called the senator ‘The female Obama’.
    In the same 2009 interview, Harris had explained how India has had a great deal of influence on her as a politician. "India is the oldest democracy in the world. So that is part of my background, and without question, it has had a great deal of influence on what I do today and who I am," she had said.
    Towards that end, then, when she is evaluated in the context of her background, it is important to get it fully right.
    Harris’ is also a story similar to that of Tiger Woods, as highlighted the report by Poynter.
    Woods, in most early stories after his rise as a golf superstar, was called as an African-American. However, this isn’t the entire truth, the report noted.
    “His mother is Thai. His father is only partially African-American. Some stories about Woods’ ethnic background say his father has a mixture of races and ethnicities, including Chinese. That makes Tiger Woods more Asian than black, yet, according to most news-media labeling, he is black.”
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