How Kamala Harris' Black and Indian Heritage Shaped Her World : Code Switch Kamala Harris is the vice president-elect, which marks an impressive list of firsts: woman in the White House; Black woman in the White House, Asian American in the White House; etc. Her Indian heritage has gotten much less attention than her Black identity, and in many ways, it has been complicated by her Black identity. On this episode, we look at what Harris's identities can tell us about dual-minority POCs, South Asian political representation in the U.S., and what it all means at the voting booth.
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Claim Us If You're Famous

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Claim Us If You're Famous

Claim Us If You're Famous

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Folks, the people of this nation have spoken. They've delivered us a clear victory.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Joseph R. Biden, president-elect of the United States.

(SOUND OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: OK. Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the real star of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: And to the American people who make up our beautiful country, thank you for turning out in record numbers to make your voices heard.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: That's Kamala Harris, and I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: From NPR. Kamala Harris, the first woman and woman of color elected vice president - she spoke to the country about what this moment means to her by talking about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: ...Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts.

(CHEERING, HORNS HONKING)

HARRIS: When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn't quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible. And so I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women...

(APPLAUSE)

HARRIS: ...Asian, white, Latina, Native American women...

(CHEERING)

HARRIS: ...Who, throughout our nation's history, have paved the way for this moment tonight.

DEMBY: All over the country - really, all over the world, I guess - people have been expressing their excitement at the news of that first. You know, there's all these memes out there that are like, watch your feet; there's glass on the ground - you know, 'cause the glass ceiling got shattered.

MERAJI: Yeah. A friend texted me that the sound giving them life was glass shattering.

DEMBY: It's like a Jewish wedding.

MERAJI: Opa - is that Jewish wedding or Greek? Anyway, people were screaming, Kamala's the first woman VP; she's the first daughter of immigrants VP; she's the first Black woman VP; she's the first Asian woman VP, the first South Asian woman VP - no, the first Indian American woman VP.

DEMBY: All first everything - and all this parsing of the many, many facets of Kamala Harris' identity was happening long before Election Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST MONTAGE)

STEVE INSKEEP: ...Woman he settled on identifies as Black and as the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. Nobody...

JUANA SUMMERS: She's now making history on two fronts - the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent to rise to one of the highest levels of the nation's politics.

ASMA KHALID: ...The fact that we have never had a Black woman in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIC ROBERTSON: Kamala Harris speaks passionately of her heritage, a daughter shaped by the world.

DEMBY: (Imitating British accent) Shaped by the world...

It sounds so much more colonialist when it comes out of a British person's voice. People always talk about biracial people like this, by the way, like the fact of their parentage means that they're global citizens or something or that they're, like, a testament to how everything's OK and, you know, everything is over because, you know, their parents who are of different races came together and made this nice little caramel baby. Do you say care-amel (ph) or car-mel (ph)?

MERAJI: I like both.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: We've talked about this before on the show. Basically, America fetishizes multiracial people for being, you know, beautiful, special without really thinking too hard about what their identities are, what it means to live with multiple identities.

DEMBY: I think you may have mentioned this once or twice.

MERAJI: Racial identities - let me be more specific. Yes. Yes, Gene? Yeah, I know a little something about this.

DEMBY: Just a little bit. So today on the show, we're going to get into that. We're going to talk about what exactly it means for Kamala Harris to be the United States' first Black, South Asian, Indian, multiracial, female vice president-elect. There's so many dashes, so many hyphens.

MERAJI: So many hyphens.

DEMBY: And we're going to get into what her political prominence might help illuminate or obscure about South Asian political identity...

MERAJI: About multiracial people and how they're perceived...

DEMBY: And about how Blackness intersects with all these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: My mother instilled in my sister Maya and me the values that would chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong Black women, and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Whew, those sound like some carefully chosen words.

DEMBY: Oh, hey, Kuku (ph). Did not see you there - that's creepy.

MERAJI: You snuck up on us.

DEVARAJAN: Hey, how's it going?

MERAJI: To all you listeners, Kumari Devarajan, aka Kuku, KD. She's a producer on CODE SWITCH. She's also our biracial South Asian correspondent.

DEVARAJAN: Yep, my mom is white, and my dad is a Tamil Sri Lankan. And by the way, Kamala Harris is also Tamil.

MERAJI: Whoop, whoop - shout out to the Tamils.

DEMBY: Shout out to all the Tamils out there - and M.I.A., right?

MERAJI: And M.I.A., the most famous Tamil in the world.

DEVARAJAN: Maybe don't shout out M.I.A...

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Maybe not M.I.A. - OK.

MERAJI: And so that's part of the reason why you became interested in how Kamala Harris was being perceived, right?

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, that's right. So this all started back in 2019 when Kamala Harris was one of the many, many, many contenders to be the Democratic nominee for president. And just like a lot of people, I ended up in conversations about the different candidates. And when it came to Kamala Harris, I found that the people I was talking to knew a lot about her as a politician. They knew her policies and her record. But when I would bring up the fact that she was South Asian, a lot of them had no idea. Obviously, now everybody knows - but back then, not so much.

MERAJI: That's interesting. I do not remember not knowing that Kamala had multiple racial identities. I'm from California - California born and raised - and Kamala has been a fixture in my life for years. I'm also the kind of person that's always looking out for other multiracial, multiethnic, public-facing people, so maybe I'm a little not normal.

DEMBY: You have highly trained beige-dar (ph), you know what I mean?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Like, hmm, something going on there.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: My wife is South Asian, so we've been talking a lot about Kamala Harris' South Asian identity, her cousins and I, we've been talking about it a lot.

MERAJI: On your WhatsApp group?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: Hey, we love WhatsApp.

DEMBY: South Asians love a WhatsApp.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, man. They should be talking to my aunties. I get - I wake up to, like...

DEMBY: I literally have to - I got to mute that WhatsApp group, like, once a day. Like, bro, I can't read my phone...

DEVARAJAN: I know. I have too many aunts that I need to do it as well. Just kidding, Aunty, if you're listening. But I felt like I should bring it up because it was kind of a big deal. We rarely see South Asians in such prominent political positions. So I was like, hello, why is nobody talking about this?

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

MINDY KALING: OK. So what we're going to cook today...

HARRIS: OK.

KALING: ...Is an Indian recipe...

HARRIS: Yes.

KALING: ...Because you are Indian.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes. Yes.

KALING: OK. And I don't know that everybody knows that. But I find that wherever I go and I see Indian people at the supermarket, on the street, everyone's like, you know Kamala Harris is Indian, right? It's like our thing we're so excited about.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: That is from a video of Mindy Kaling and Kamala Harris that went viral in the lead-up to the Democratic primaries. And to me, it read as kind of like Harris' coming out. Like, hey, everybody, JSYK, I'm Indian.

DEMBY: Weren't they making, like, dosas or something? Yeah, I remember that Mindy video. It was kind of an audacious choice of Senator Harris because people have strong feelings about Mindy Kaling and her relationship to, you know, South Asian representation. But, you know...

MERAJI: Wasn't, for a long time, she was like, it doesn't matter that I'm Indian?

DEMBY: Yeah.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. Well, Kamala's people called me first. But actually, I was unavailable, so maybe she was their second choice. But I digress. So this racial "coming out" - I'm doing air quotes, if you will - is definitely not something that is unique to Kamala Harris. When people are dual-minority biracial, like you, Shereen, one aspect of their identity often seems to exist more at the forefront and one more in the background.

MERAJI: Ah, yes, dual-minority POCs - is that the right way of putting it? Let's do a quick explanatory comma for that. It's when your parents are both not white, which is, you know, a minority within a minority, since most multiracial people in the United States have one white parent. And that whole toggling identities thing, I definitely identify with that. My first year of college, I did try going by my middle name, Marisol, so folks who assumed I was Iranian, who didn't know me and just assumed I was Iranian based on Shereen Meraji, would also know I am Puerto Rican, too, damn it.

DEMBY: I did not - for as long as we've known each other, I did not know this. We always get emails from people who are like, Marisol, I really liked this last episode. I'm like, that's not her name. Maybe they just...

MERAJI: But it is.

DEMBY: ...Are people from, like, your 20s, maybe. I don't know.

MERAJI: It was almost my name. Nah, it didn't work very well.

DEMBY: It didn't take.

MERAJI: It didn't work. It didn't stick. People would just be, like, calling out across the quad - Marisol, Marisol. I wouldn't turn around. I'm like, who the hell are they talking to? Don't they know my name is Shereen?

DEMBY: Got to commit to this rebranding, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Yeah. I didn't have that kind of willpower, so I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And, yes, I'm Latina. And, yes, I'm Iranian. It's complicated.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. Well, you know, just like you, a lot of biracial people can kind of choose what parts of themselves they want to put a little, like, oomph on, like, a little emphasis.

DEMBY: I thought you were going to say adobo.

DEVARAJAN: ...Which definitely...

DEMBY: I was going to get mad.

(LAUGHTER)

DEVARAJAN: But that definitely depends on everything from their appearance and their communities, that kind of thing. And according to one expert I spoke to, when you're Black and something else, like Kamala Harris, it's usually that something else that's more in the background.

NITASHA SHARMA: When people are like, oh, did you know so-and-so is Black and Chinese or Black and Indian? That always is supposed to come as a surprise. But it doesn't last long in sort of the national imaginary. It still then reduces to Blackness. Not to say that Blackness is reductive because it can also be really expansive - but it can be reductive when it denies the person the ability to be what they say they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Ooh, it's getting messy.

DEMBY: I hope so. I hope so.

DEVARAJAN: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEVARAJAN: Kumari.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. OK. So when we left, you know, for the little breaky thing, we were just getting into the fact that Kamala Harris is Indian. And it was something that had to be kind of announced well into her White House bid.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, to some people. I feel like for us South Asians, we always knew she was Indian. My dad actually calls her Kamala Gopalan, which is her mother's Tamil last name, just to recognize that she's South Asian - just like you, Marisol.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Right.

DEVARAJAN: But I realized there is something that kind of gave her away.

SUMA CHERU: I had recognized the name Kamala because it is actually my grandma's name.

KANIKA VAISH: Because I recognized Kamala as a potentially South Asian name. And then I looked up her whole story.

SHARMA: I always knew she was Indian 'cause she has the same name as my auntie in the village. The name does not signal for a mainstream American - right? - her ancestry or her connection to India. But to Indians and to people who know Indians and to people who are Asian American, they will know that.

DEVARAJAN: So what you just heard was a very scientific sampling consisting of a couple of my South Asian friends, Suma Cheru (ph) and Kanika Vaish (ph).

DEMBY: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: And that last voice you heard is Nitasha Sharma. She is an associate professor of African American studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.

MERAJI: The absolutely perfect expert for this episode...

DEMBY: She majored in this episode.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, I guess they're offering degrees in Kamala Harris now. And Nitasha says that there's been a lot of support for Kamala Harris coming from the South Asian community.

DEMBY: OK.

DEVARAJAN: And that's also what I've been hearing.

SHARMA: I think on the one hand, there's a pride, right? Claim us if you're famous.

MERAJI: I love that. Claim us if you're famous. I have never heard that before.

DEVARAJAN: Of course, there are South Asian folks, probably a lot of my friends, who are critical of her policies. But we can safely assume that South Asians overwhelmingly voted for Kamala Harris. And there are a few reasons for that. I talked to Karthick Ramakrishnan, who is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside. He is also Tamil like me and Kamala and Mindy Kaling.

MERAJI: And M.I.A. - galang-a-lang-a-lang-lang (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Karthick is great. I feel like interviewing Karthick is kind of a rite of passage because every one at CODE SWITCH has done so at this point. He's the director of AAPI Data, which does public opinion polling and research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, he told me that South Asians are some of the most loyal Democratic voters.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Their tilt towards the Democratic Party is stronger than it is among Latinos but weaker than it is among African Americans.

MERAJI: And as we said on the show, about two-thirds of Latinos usually vote Democrat - or Democratic, whatever we're saying, and around 90% of African Americans.

DEMBY: So that's pretty strong.

MERAJI: So South Asian support for the Democratic Party falls somewhere in between. Yeah, that's strong up.

DEVARAJAN: Yep. And Karthick told me that that loyalty strengthened after 9/11.

RAMAKRISHNAN: You saw a major increase in racial discrimination and hate crimes and racial profiling in the wake of 9/11. And South Asians felt much more at home in the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party was seen as much stronger and more credible on the issue of racial discrimination and combating hate crimes.

MERAJI: OK. So there's one big reason South Asians support Kamala Harris. What else is there, Kumari? You said there are multiple things.

DEVARAJAN: Well, another big reason is that she represents a lot of things that are considered pretty important among a lot of South Asian communities.

SHARMA: She's so respectable. She's doing all the things, right? She's not crazy progressive. She's not, right? She is highly educated. She is well-dressed. She's married a nice white man, right? I mean, she's done all the things that desis approve of.

MERAJI: Oh, boy.

DEMBY: That's a lot (laughter).

MERAJI: So in some ways, she's Miss South Asia. She has the sash. She has the crown. She's doing all the right things.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, she's got the wave. So that was Nitasha Sharma, whom we heard from earlier. And when we're talking about respectability and approval among South Asians, we're talking about caste. Kamala Harris' mother is descended from Brahmins who are at the tippity-top of the caste system.

SHARMA: It is not as if she is a Kshatriya or Shudra or an "untouchable" - a Dalit - right? - quote-unquote, which would create some tension for - among Indians that she would be a representative of Indian arrival.

DEVARAJAN: If you're not South Asian, caste might be invisible to you. But if you are, then caste determines a lot about your life, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. So if anyone was going to receive support from the mainstream South Asian American community, it's going to be an upper-caste person like Kamala Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: But of course, this episode is also about multiracial identity. And lest we forget, Kamala Harris is also a Black woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHARMA: It's kind of tickling me, like it makes me giggle a little bit that Kamala Harris, that Indians are so proud of her and Indians are also, generally speaking, so anti-Black. I think that, you know, it's kind of not the chickens coming home to roost, but maybe so.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. Well, Kamala Harris is upper caste. She has a law degree. She's straight - all these things that I'm not. She's also very successful. She's not Muslim. She didn't marry a Black person, but her mom did.

SHARMA: The one time that the mainstream sort of, you know, respectable Indian community that is very proud of itself - and, you know, I love my Indian community, but we have issues - that the woman and the person that they get to celebrate in this moment is a woman - right? - and is the daughter of a very independent South Indian woman who was very independent, came before the mainstream Immigration Act of '65 and who chose to marry a Black man.

MERAJI: So is Nitasha saying this point right here, this affects how Kamala's South Asian supporters see her?

DEVARAJAN: What's interesting is South Asians are still strongly supporting her publicly but with kind of an asterisk.

SHARMA: It's very liberal right now - right? - to be an American and to celebrate Kamala for both being Black and for being Indian. But it doesn't mean that they'd want their sons to marry her.

DEMBY: Oh, my God. Nitasha going in right now, what.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, she's going in on my people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: And she's really not wrong about anti-Blackness in South Asian spaces. And this idea that you can't marry a Black person, I hear that a lot.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. It's incredibly common in Iranian and non-Black Latinx spaces, too.

DEVARAJAN: And so, in the same way that biracial people do not symbolize anything about the status of racial harmony, South Asians' embrace of Kamala Harris is not evidence of our reckoning with anti-Black racism. A few examples - some of the South Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the early 20th century reasoned that they were basically white and had pure Aryan blood as an argument to obtain American citizenship. This did not work out for them, by the way.

DEMBY: It was a Supreme Court case, right?

MERAJI: Yeah. We did a story - we talked about it on the show.

DEMBY: Yeah.

DEVARAJAN: In South Asia, there is still an understanding that lighter skin is more desirable. And South Asians who immigrate to the U.S. carry those beliefs with them, which easily translate to anti-Blackness.

MERAJI: And then here in the United States, we've got white supremacy, which has all of us POCs jockeying for a position in this racial hierarchy.

DEMBY: Right. And if Black people have been placed at the bottom of that racial hierarchy, then the way you sort of assimilate is to not rock with Black people.

DEVARAJAN: One of the things I was curious about was, why did it take her becoming the VP candidate for the media and the rest of the U.S. to really take notice of her Indian heritage?

DEMBY: Right - 'cause when she was still running for president, most people saw her as just Black.

SHARMA: That is not necessarily a negative thing. That's how she self-identifies as well. She is a Black woman. She was, you know, born and raised in Oakland, Calif., in - right? And she grew up in the '60s. And she'd know people who founded the Black studies departments. And she was around the civil rights and Black nationalist movements in the Bay Area. She went to a historically Black university and college, right? So that's the way race operates in the United States.

DEMBY: Yeah. On our last episode about Kamala Harris, just a couple of episodes ago, we focused on how her politics fit in with Black political thought about policing throughout the '90s and the 2000s. And a lot of people see her as part of that particular political scene and judge her accordingly.

DEVARAJAN: And that definitely has to do with how she's positioned herself. But it also has to do with something really important about how race works.

JACQUELINE M CHEN: We don't like to think about people as more than one race. It's more complicated.

DEVARAJAN: I spoke to Jackie Chen, who is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Utah. She studies perceptions of multiracial people and specifically perceptions of their loyalty.

MERAJI: Ah, loyalty, yes. I know a little something about that. People always perceive me as much more loyal to my Puerto Rican side at the expense of loyalty to my Iranian side.

DEVARAJAN: And Jackie found that Black people and Asian people tend to think about loyalty super differently.

CHEN: Essentially, what we find is that among Black Americans, there is a broad acceptance of biracial people or, more broadly, people with part-Black ancestry.

DEMBY: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, Frederick Douglass, Bob Marley, right? Like, there are all sorts of very well-known Black people with white parents whose Blackness is taken as a given - Barack Obama - because Blackness has always had to operate that way.

MERAJI: Well, there's that rule of hypodescent descent, or the one-drop rule, which most of us know about. During slavery, if you had any Black ancestry, you were legally Black, and that was to increase the number of people that could be enslaved.

DEMBY: Homer Plessy, the dude behind Plessy v. Ferguson - right? - the dude who was the plaintiff in that case was one-eighth Black. He was an octoroon. And he counted as Black, so he couldn't sit on the train car, which is how we got Plessy v. Ferguson (unintelligible).

MERAJI: Yep.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. So that's exactly what Jackie said.

CHEN: Certainly, there is a lot of precedent for part-Black multiracials being denied any choice in their identity and having to be Black. Nowadays, although biracial people are given more choices in their identities, people and Black Americans tend to think, well, Black-white biracials probably share these experiences of discrimination that really define the Black experience in America. And because we have these shared experiences, we have this common fate. We have this link.

DEMBY: So that experience, that linked experience with Black people, makes multiracial folks more likely to be included in Black communities, to being viewed by other Black folks as Black folks.

MERAJI: But that is not how it works for all racial groups.

DEVARAJAN: Jackie says that for Asian Americans, it's the complete opposite.

CHEN: There's kind of a break with Asian Americans and Asian-white biracials, where Asian Americans say, hey, you're not really discriminated against. And I bet you want to identify as white, and I bet you wouldn't be loyal to the Asian in-group. so I think that you're not one of us. You're not Asian. You don't get it.

DEVARAJAN: Jackie says this is because many Asians don't agree on whether or not they're discriminated against in the first place. She said some believe we experience racism, and others don't. So this idea of having a linked fate based on discrimination is already kind of shaky. And then when you add biracial people, there's less a sense of we all have something in common.

MERAJI: Jackie is referring here specifically to Asian and white biracials and Black and white biracials. What about people who don't have a white parent?

DEVARAJAN: So you're right, Shereen. Jackie's research only focused on Asian-white and Black-white biracials. And then among Asians, she actually only focused on East Asian, which makes it kind of difficult to make assumptions about how this phenomenon is working on Kamala Harris. But Nitasha Sharma, the expert we heard from earlier, she said that you can see a similar thing happening with Kamala Harris.

SHARMA: She was raised in a Black community in Oakland that clearly knew she was South Asian 'cause her mom, who often wore saris - because she raised her there, and they nonetheless embraced her.

DEMBY: Yeah, I mean, that's a really good point because even though, you know, her biraciality (ph) would have been obvious 'cause, you know, her mom was walking around Oakland in a sari, it seems like the Black folks in her neighborhood in Oakland would have just been like, yeah, you live over here with us. You get bussed to school with us. You Black. It's not that complicated.

MERAJI: I grew up around more Latinos than Iranians. I grew up around my Puerto Rican side, and it was just much more natural for me to gravitate to one side of my identity. And because I felt more comfortable with that side of my identity, I acted in ways that were considered or perceived to be more Latina. And then Iranians would say things like, well, you don't look Iranian; you don't act Iranian, which then would make me feel even less Iranian and shy away from talking about that part of my identity. And then there's this weird feedback loop that happens. And I wonder if Kamala Harris went through something similar, where South Asians were like, wait a second - you don't look like us; you don't act quite like us. Are you one of us, or are you Black?

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And Nitasha says the fact that Kamala Harris is biracial and the fact that she is Black might have made it harder for South Asians to accept her.

SHARMA: Meaning that she would probably have a very different experience within a predominately Indian American community. You know, she might face racism - anti-Black racism by aunties and uncles who might tell her, stay out of the sun and things like that that my dad told me, right?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. I've heard that a lot growing up.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, me, too. And the truth is we don't know how it would have turned out if she had grown up in a more heavily South Asian community.

DEMBY: And to be fair, we know Kamala Harris was close to her Indian family. She traveled to India growing up. She kept in touch with her mother's siblings over the phone and through letters. But you know, being close with your family and being accepted by a broader community, if you're a biracial person - as Shereen will tell you - those are two different things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: OK. So we've been talking about how Kamala Harris' individual communities accept her or don't accept her or maybe accept her, but it's totally different when you're on a national stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I thought about my mother, who came to the United States at the age of 19.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And probably our closest reference point for a multiracial person with a similar status is Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: ...My own story. I'm the son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.

DEMBY: When you say probably, he is, like, I mean, just it.

MERAJI: Yeah. That's him. It's Mr. Obama. And we have about 10 years of evidence showing how President Obama's racial identity was picked apart. Like, what is he really?

DEMBY: And even Obama faced, like, sort of - all sorts of stuff around his Blackness as a racial identity, right? Like, a lot of conservatives were (unintelligible) over the fact that he was half Black, like, as a way to sort of being like, Black people can't claim credit for his presidency. People also forget that he had to give a whole-ass speech in 2008, when he was running for president, in which he had to basically allay white people's fears that he was a scary Black man. He had to distance himself from his pastor. Oh, man. It was a whole thing.

MERAJI: Yep. And that then led to complaints that he was trying way too hard to distance himself from his Blackness, talking too much about his white mom, his white grandparents from Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Yet when Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his bid for president, it set off a national debate that escaped his predecessors - a debate about being Black enough.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It used to be like nobody knew that he was mixed. But...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: His last name rhymed with Osama. His middle name was Hussein. Racially, he was half-white and half-Black.

CANDY CROWLEY: Because, yes, you're the first African American president, but your mother was white.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: By the time of our mock election, Obama had already gone from our first mixed-race president to our first Black president.

SHARMA: And so there's a suspicion that people who have African ancestry and white ancestry - if you're raised by a white parent and a Black parent and you identify as both or talk about your white parent, there's sort of this idea that you're running away from Blackness, that you are trying to be anything but Black.

MERAJI: And I know that we said earlier that the Black community was super accepting of Kamala Harris. But getting back to now she's on the national stage, this big-time spotlight is on her, that can possibly change things. Kamala Harris did get some pushback about her Blackness or her lack thereof. Last year, Washington Post senior critic-at-large Robin Givhan wrote about how some Black people looked to Kamala Harris' white husband or looked to her record as a prosecutor as things pulling her away from her Blackness, along with the fact that she also grew up surrounded by a lot of white people because her parents were a part of the ivory towers.

SHARMA: When we change those dynamics to talking about someone who is Black and Indian and she's talking about her Indian mother who raised her, there's a little more willingness to understand, OK, she's not necessarily running away from Blackness. She's not trying to aspire to whiteness or access white privilege. And so the dynamics are a little different. And so the suspicion might be temporarily put to the side to kind of listen. Oh, what does it mean to be raised by an Indian mother in the Bay Area in the '60s, right? And that's a little different than the approaches to Obama.

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DEVARAJAN: But there is something else that she has to deal with that Obama never had to deal with. Kamala Harris is a woman.

DEMBY: Wait. What?

DEVARAJAN: I know - breaking news. She's Black. She's Indian. She's a woman. So she has to be really careful when it comes to maneuvering around stereotypes that intersect with all of these identities.

MERAJI: You've got the loud and angry Black woman stereotype.

DEVARAJAN: And then a different stereotype when it comes to Asian women.

SHARMA: Asian womanhood - Asian American women are conceptualized as being quiet, submissive - right? - as dominated by - right? - the white man.

DEMBY: OK. But if a lot of Americans didn't even know, if it wasn't registering to them that Kamala Harris is South Asian, the pressure of not having to be too submissive, that might not be too big of a deal, right?

DEVARAJAN: Right. But then again, she's on stage in front of all of America. So it's really tricky.

SHARMA: It's tricky. But then I'm like, she has a lifetime of experience, right? I mean, she's been this person and in this nation and aware of these dynamics forever, for her whole life.

DEVARAJAN: What's so bananas is that we've never had someone like her as a vice president, who comes from multiple communities and shares multiple marginalized identities, which leads me to the question - who gets to claim her?

SHARMA: On the one hand, there were a lot of memes and responses to when she said, I'm speaking, right?

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HARRIS: Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking.

MIKE PENCE: I have to weigh in.

HARRIS: I'm speaking.

SHARMA: Where Black women were saying - right? - this is the experience of every Black woman speaking - right? - and being spoken over. Then there were sort of Black women academics who were saying, this is every Black woman at a Black faculty meeting. Then there were women of color who were saying, this is every woman of color speaking at a faculty meeting. And then there were sort of white women who were saying, this is every woman speaking at a faculty meeting.

MERAJI: So I'm hearing Nitasha say that all women can claim Kamala Harris.

DEVARAJAN: Well...

SHARMA: But then there were debates among these folks - right? - saying, well, this is not every white woman; this is every woman of color. And then people even more specified, no, it's not every woman of color; this is about a Black woman.

MERAJI: So any woman who wants to claim her can, but there are limits. White women and non-Black women of color will never understand what it means to be a Black woman in America. And if you're claiming Kamala Harris by saying her experience is every woman's experience, you're overshadowing the obstacles Black women face when it comes to getting to the place Kamala Harris has - vice president-elect.

DEMBY: But then again, you know, you got to ask, like, would she have gotten where she is if there wasn't, you know, light-skin privilege at play - right? - if her parents were not professors and she didn't have all the social capital and connections that came with that and she wasn't half-Indian and her parents weren't immigrants? All that stuff matters, too, right?

DEVARAJAN: Yeah.

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DEVARAJAN: We've been going back and forth about this point for days, and it's just totally breaking my brain.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yeah, because it's so much easier to break things down into binaries, and there are so many intersections at play when it comes to Kamala Harris. And even when it comes to binaries, we are conditioned to think of Black and white, one or the other.

DEMBY: Yeah, we have just not exercised that muscle a whole lot. It was only the year 2000 - it was 20 years ago - that people could choose more than one race on the census questionnaire. So we can tell ourselves that she's both Black and South Asian sort of, like, intellectually, but as a country, we still haven't really accepted in our hearts that people are not necessarily either-or.

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DEVARAJAN: And as we can glean from VP-elect Kamala Harris, identity is about so much more than just adding up your census boxes. Here's Nitasha Sharma again.

SHARMA: And I think that that's really key. We have to be able to see that people have racial identities, and they're complicated and multiple and not always evident. And then we also have community. And for me, I create community based on people's political worldviews. That's my people. I don't really care what your background is, ancestrally. Every person in the United States should know this at this point, that we have ancestry. We have the people who raised us. We have kin. We have fictive kin, the family we choose. We have work-based communities and communities that are based on shared interests. And those things don't overlap all the time.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Shereen at @radiomirage - that's all one word. You can follow me at @geedee215, that G-E-E-D-E-E 2-1-5. You can follow Kumari at @kukzandladders - that's K-U-K-Z and ladders, all one word. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One and wherever you get your podcasts. And, seriously, hit us up on OnlyFans, I'm not - I'm joking. I'm dead-ass.

MERAJI: Are you not serious, or are you joking? Is there an OnlyFans page?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: It that what it's called, OnlyFans? I feel so old already.

DEMBY: Is that what it's called, Shereen? Wink wink.

(LAUGHTER)

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. You know what it's called.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan, who you just heard. It was edited by Leah Donnella. And, of course, we have to shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH team. Sorry, Gene, I just took your line.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza. She also fact-checked this episode.

DEMBY: I'm...

MERAJI: Go ahead, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you, Shereen. I'm Gene Demby.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. I drank way too much coffee today.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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