I identified as Asian for a long period of my life. There was never a box for both Asian and white, or a write-in option to expand upon my Asianness, and when I looked around in my classrooms, I knew I wasn’t white. And so I was Asian — no addition, no explanation. That’s how I understood myself until I was maybe 19.
Being Asian made me feel special and different, but I built a lot of shame around it too. I had a lot of hang-ups around “conforming” and “fitting in” with white kids, even though I was, really, half-white. But in a white society, there is no room for nuance. There is no room for halves or quarters. You are either all or nothing.
In my college entrance essay, I essentially wrote about how having a Filipino mom was an “adversity” I learned to “embrace.” Later, I realized that most of the examples of adversity I listed had little to do with my mother being Filipino. They had to do with being part of a poor and working-class family. Over the years, I came to realize just how hurtful my essay was. But yeah, this is how I got into journalism school.
In the spring before graduating high school, I submitted the essay for a zine whose theme was being mixed. They sent me a copy of the zine in return, and I showed it to my mom. I don’t remember her being excited, but I don’t remember her being disappointed either. I’m now old enough to be disappointed for the both of us.
Today I understand myself to be half-Filipino and half-white, but it took me decades to foster that understanding — to divorce myself from the lens forced upon multiracial people, decolonize the way I see my existence and my parents’ existences, and investigate how I feel about my identity. To separate my identity from the assumptions that even people close to me projected upon it.
I’ll probably keep unpacking and inspecting my understanding until my death. I am my race just as much as I am not my race, and many people in this country know that reality better, and live it more intensely, than I do.
This is all to say that, given the work that I’ve had to do to understand myself, even as someone who is half-white, I am exhausted but not surprised that “What is Kamala Harris?” is a prominent question within the discourse around her Democratic vice presidential nomination. I am sickened by it, but not shocked. Heaven forbid we be able to engage in critical conversations about what her nomination means for people who look like her and people who’ve suffered under her prosecution, and the people who look like them, without also having to wade through a sea of white supremacy.
This morning, a Twitter moment titled “Kamala Harris is eligible to serve as US president, fact-checkers confirm” is the first item that pops up for me when I search her name on the site, followed by “kamala harris not black” and “kamala harris indian.”
Even the Google News results for “Kamala Harris race,” from what I assume are publications engaging in good faith, supply the following news results with sensationalist, perhaps SEO-driven framing:
“Is Kamala Harris Described as ‘Caucasian’ on Her Birth Certificate?” from the Dispatch, another Substack newsletter.
And here are a few of the not-so-good-faith engagements with this concept of Harris as biracial:
The latter story informed Trump’s thoughtful take on the situation. From CNN’s “fact check”:
Trump was told about claims on “social media” that Harris might be ineligible to serve as president and vice president. He was then asked if he can definitively say that she meets the requirements.
Trump said, “I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements.” He referred to a lawyer who raised the issue in a Newsweek article, Chapman University professor John Eastman, as “very highly qualified.”
Trump then said he has “no idea” whether it’s true Harris doesn’t meet the requirements. He then asked the reporter if she was saying Harris doesn’t qualify because Harris “wasn’t born in this country.” […]
Trump did say that he is not certain if Harris is eligible or not; he concluded his comments by saying, “I just heard about it, I’ll take a look.”
Of course, this was always how it was going to go down. Our country looks at people of color as monolithic, representative of their respective races and ethnicities. It fails to consider how our history of violence has affected the identities of Black Americans today, and how it has defined how Black Americans are understood by others, and understand themselves.
We saw this before Harris’ nomination, and I know I’m guilty of this, too — with the media only characterizing Harris as Black, and rarely acknowledging her biracialism. I think this pushback that rippled through the mainstream coverage of her nomination — that she was also the first Asian American nominated as VP to a major party ticket — is evidence that people are tired of conforming to the narratives that a weak, majority-white media inexperienced with understanding race is setting out for them. For me, it clouds the struggles I have with the feeling that I am now “represented” by Harris. Getting a handle on my views of her ascent, and my reservations about her, is complicated enough even before I have to deal with how much we’re struggling to accurately represent multiracialism in the first place.
I fail to see a future beyond these pathetic interpretations and conversations around race, let alone multiracialism, at least not in my lifetime. White people are endlessly terrible at handling the convergence of race and power, and their failure creates an infuriating cycle for everyone else. There are many more people who understand this better than I do, who, even as they grapple with the harm Harris has caused, will also be required to defend her against sexist, racist, ignorant birther attacks, made by bad-faith politicians and pundits on the right who weaponize this playbook.
We will suffer through less than three (oh my god) more months of these racist, misleading narratives, and then, if we’re “lucky,” another four years, and who knows how many more years after that, of white media fixating upon and misrepresenting identity and giving room to people like Trump to say awful things. This is the world that we live in, and I’m resigned to having to undercut my critiques of Harris, and Joe Biden, with punches against this rhetoric.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr