On Aug. 11, 2020, Kamala Harris was announced as the vice president for Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden. Senator Harris’ nomination is a historic first — she is the first Asian American and first Black woman nominee of a major political party in American history. Since Senator Harris first appeared on the political stage, news outlets have become increasingly confused on how to refer to her racial and ethnic identity: Black, South Asian, Indian American, African American and Jamaican American. This plethora of classifications, which have been used by both Senator Harris herself as well as major media outlets, speaks volumes about the experiences of many multiracial and multiethnic folks in the United States. Not only do people with multiracial identities grow and change within these identities, but society’s gaze shifts on us based on national sentiment and current politics. Senator Harris’ nomination can be used as a starting point to speak about AfroAsian encounters in American society as well as the complex, and often fraught, relationship between Black and Asian American communities.
Before one can speak more about Kamala Harris and her place in AfroAsian history, she must first be placed within the existing history between Asian and Black communities. It is essential to speak on the relationship between South Asians and Black Americans, since popular media so often only focuses on the history of East Asians in America. There have been mixed Black and South Asian communities in the United States as early as the 1880s when Bengali and Bangladeshi men were embraced by communities of color and married Black and Puerto Rican women. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, there was also vast support between Gandhian movements and those for Black Civil Rights. While this is not a direct connection between South Asian Americans and Black Americans, it shows a communication and commitment to liberation that both communities have long held. Part of the false narrative that the United States puts forward is that there are insurmountable differences between Black and Asian Americans, and these communities have entirely segregated histories that would prohibit them from any sort of productive unity.
In fact, a massive part of our collective histories is the role that Black and Asian communities have had continuing the oppression of each others’ communities. A writer from the Outline puts it perfectly by saying, “At the core of black-Asian conflict stories is the idea that each group is willing to sacrifice the other in order to overcome white subjugation.” When people speak about the oppression of Black and Asian communities, the hand that white supremacy plays in this oppression often falls to the wayside. Conflicts between these two communities is a byproduct of the current capitalist system that we live in. Clashes and conflicts are not a failure of the American system, but rather an intentional product that perpetuates the oppression of people of color. On the 25th anniversary of the infamous Los Angeles riots, L.A. City Councilman David Ryu says “The L.A. riots was not a black-Korean issue. It was a poverty issue; it was an issue of language barriers.” Ryu is getting at the notion that class struggle and the pitting of communities of color against one another is not the fault of these communities. It was the intended output of the pervasive xenophobia, denial of opportunity and unequal treatment by the law that they face. The continuation of Asian Americans as pawns used to oppress Black people is made crystal clear with the recent death of George Floyd. Tou Thao, a Hmong police officer, assisted his white colleague in the unlawful killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Anti-Blackness within Asian American communities — South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian — is becoming a more clear problem, with younger generations demanding that their communities address this long-standing issue.
With this picture in mind, Kamala Harris steps onto the U.S. political stage, a proud Jamaican and Indian American woman vying for one of the most powerful positions in federal government. Senator Harris faces a unique position because of the plurality of her identity and the communities that she is being demanded to represent. She stands as the product of two marginalized groups who each require her to speak on their behalf in different ways. Not only does she face the familiar problem of being “Asian enough” as a mixed-race person within the Asian American community, she also must be aware of her Blackness within the larger system. While she is a mixed-race woman, American society will always see Senator Harris as a Black woman before anything else. This is partially from the continued notion of the “one-drop rule” in American society, which comes from policies put in place during slavery that deemed any person with Black lineage as being Black, and therefore unable to own land or be free. Some of her identification as a Black woman may also come from media outlets not knowing how to address her pluralistic identity.
This is not an endorsement of Senator Harris, nor will her vice presidential nomination solve interminority racism in this country; it can instead be used to ask larger questions about AfroAsian history and what the most ideal relationship between Black and Asian Americans would be in the future. Hopefully Senator Harris’ nomination will encourage Americans to challenge how they see Black and Asian American as binaries. Despite the dubious history of race in the United States, it is so often portrayed as being clear-cut and unavoidable, which multiracial people have proven to be incorrect. Recent changes in the national conversation, like those revolving around the complicity of Asian Americans in police brutality towards Black Americans and the nominating of Kamala Harris hopefully will create space for a cultural shift. Instead of only seeing each other through the white gaze of news and pop culture, Asian and Black Americans can start to do the work within our own communities as well as across communities to dismantle the hate we’ve been taught and work to create a movement for collective liberation.