Democratic vice presidential candidate senator Kamala Harris
(D-California) speaks during the third day of the Democratic
National Convention, on August 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in
Wilmington, Delaware. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #10 (September 7, 2020),
pages 7 & 12.
Dual identities challenge America’s race
By Sally Ho
The Associated Press
It was just 20 years ago that the U.S. census began to allow
Americans to identify as more than one race. And now, the
country is on the threshold of seeing the name of Kamala Harris
— proud daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother — on the
Harris’ historic nomination for vice president on the
Democratic ticket is challenging America’s emphasis on identity
While her dual heritage represents several slices of the
multicultural and multiracial experience, many have puzzled over
how to define her — an issue people of diverse backgrounds have
long had to navigate.
Harris has long incorporated both sides of her parentage in
her public persona, but also has been steadfast in claiming her
Black identity, saying her mother — the biggest influence on her
life — raised her and her sister as Black because that’s the way
the world would view them.
"My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values
that would chart the course of our lives," Harris said in her
speech at the Democratic National Convention to accept her
party’s nomination. "She raised us to be proud, strong Black
women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian
A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that multiracial
people in the U.S. were growing at a rate three times faster
than the general population. A majority said they were proud of
their mixed-race background, but had been subjected to racial
slurs or jokes. And about 25% said they were bothered by people
making assumptions about their racial background.
Harris herself has lamented how others feel a need to define
her, despite how comfortable she is in her own skin.
"I didn’t go through some evolution about who am I and what
is my identity," she said in a June interview with the Los
Angeles Times’ "Asian Enough" podcast. "And I guess the
frustration I have is if people think that I should have gone
through such a crisis and need to explain it."
For others from multiracial backgrounds, however, the journey
can be fraught. On her Instagram account, Amanda Neal proudly
declares that she’s "HELLA BLACK, HELLA PINAY," referring to the
demonym for a woman of Filipino descent. But the 30-year-old
voice instructor in Chicago says it’s taken much time and
self-reflection to fully embrace both sides of her racial
As a young girl, Neal said people often tried to make her
choose one identity over the other because her mother is an
immigrant from the Philippines and her father is an African
American who grew up in Chicago and Hawai‘i. And she said some
Filipino relatives told her to avoid sounding or acting "too
"It turned into an anti-Blackness that I didn’t even know I
had," she said.
Sheila SatheWarner’s two sons are Black and Asian, just like
Harris. SatheWarner is Indian American, and her husband is of
African Caribbean descent via St. Croix.
While one boy looks more Indian and the other more Black,
SatheWarner said she has stressed their Black heritage, much
like Harris’ mother. She encourages them to embrace the natural
texture of their hair and reminds them to never play with toy
guns for fear of them being targeted by police.
"We’ve always talked to them about both their heritages. We
have been committed to visiting St. Croix," said SatheWarner, a
middle-school principal from Alameda, California. "They are both
The subject is inextricably linked to the "one drop rule," a
legal principle rooted in slavery that anyone with even a drop
of Black lineage could not own land or be free. Today, it
manifests itself in the way people visually categorize others
and the social hierarchy between races, said Sarah Gaither, a
Duke University professor studying race who herself is Black and
No one carries the same experience or should serve as
"identity police," said Gaither, who stressed the importance of
allowing multiracial, multicultural people to define for
themselves who they are, and accepting that a biracial person’s
identity may evolve.
Officially, the U.S. census claims that about 3.5% of U.S.
residents identified as two or more races in 2018, up from 2.4%
in 2000. But when Pew conducted its own survey, its number
increased five-fold when accounting for people who identified as
one race but said that at least one of their parents was a
different race or multiracial, as well as people who had at
least one grandparent of a different race than themselves or
And though respondents were allowed to identify as more than
one race in the U.S. census beginning in 2000, the race category
options still are not all-encompassing.
People of Middle Eastern or North African descent have long
struggled with what to pick. Advocates had unsuccessfully pushed
for a separate category for the 2020 census, but the Census
Bureau for now encourages people in those categories to identify
as white. And even though Hispanic identity isn’t a race,
Latinos often aren’t sure how to answer the race question and
select "some other race" on census forms.
Aside from the way they outwardly present, how multiracial
people are raised and conditioned by their families, their
exposure to certain relatives, and the makeup of their community
surroundings also are important factors in how they identify.
Former President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan and
mother was white, identifies as Black, while Meghan Markle, the
Duchess of Sussex, whose father is white and mother is Black,
has indicated a preference for being identified as biracial.
Then there’s pro golfer Tiger Woods, who coined the term
"Cablinasian" because his mixed-race parents were of white,
Black, Asian, and Native American ancestry. Woods’ unorthodox
choice has offended some African Americans, who view it as a
rejection of his Black identity.
For most of his childhood, Benjamin Beltran identified with
his dad’s roots as a Filipino growing up in Saginaw, Michigan,
with few other Asian Americans. At times, that made his white
mother worry he was forgetting her ancestry, which traces to
Scotland and Ireland. Still, most people assume he is Latino.
The 26-year-old college administrator living in Washington,
D.C., said he started shifting to identify as multiracial and
biracial when he began hanging out with more Asian Americans in
college, because he found his life experience was not quite
syncing with his former preferred label.
"What I think is really cool is her identity is not simple,"
Beltran said of Harris. "It’s complex and it’s nuanced and it’s
reflective of more and more Americans in this day and age."
AP journalists Noreen Nasir in Chicago and Michael Schneider
in Orlando, Florida, contributed. Census 2020 forms are
currently due on September 30, 2020. If your household has not
yet replied, visit <www.my2020census.gov>.