Kamala Harris is black. People who have taken even one eye blink of time to try to piece this fact apart and dissect her racial identity as any kind of an issue are EXACTLY why the United States cannot get over its problems with race. Its not just white folks who raise this question either. Because Senator Harris’ “black side” (lordy…) is from Jamaica, people question the authenticity of her connection to the African American experience.
Okay, let’s try to get past the fact that Africans were enslaved in Jamaica nearly as long as Africans in the United States, let’s get past the f**ked up history of the “one drop rule”, let’s get past that idiot woman in Washington State and deal with one fact that was boldly and painfully on display during the presidential debates this week: Senator Harris’ childhood was shaped by being the target and pawn of institutional racism in the United States. Senator Harris (with whom I share Jamaican heritage) experienced busing and desegregation in the United States as a black child. I can tell you as someone who also lived through busing in the 1970’s (in Massachusetts) it was not pretty. I cannot speak for the psychological impact that Senator Harris was left with, although clearly she is proud of the education that this desegregation afforded her and how it became a springboard for her early intellectual development. But I can speak to the impact it had on me. It has lasted a lifetime.
I was born in New York City and in first, second and third grade attended private and highly integrated schools. When we moved to Massachusetts in January 1974, I suddenly found myself in a school where I was one of only 7 black students in the entire school (K — 5 elementary.) I had absolutely no tools to deal with being taunted for my hair or the questions about whether my skin color would rub off, or the casual racism of children who had never been closer to a black person than Good Times on television. The other place these children and their parents saw blacks were on the news in buses as METCO students were being shipped out from the inner city to the suburbs where the schools had better teachers and better budgets. They saw other whites defending their schools by throwing rocks and barricading buses from moving. But the problem was, I wasn’t bused in…I lived in the town, and no one seemed to know what to do with that. My parents had good jobs and owned a house. I walked to school. But apparently the child whose parents would not let me beyond the threshold of their home did not know this; the people who let their dog loose on me on the street shouting encouragement for it to “get him” didn’t know it. The child who said to me “oh but one of your parents has to be white” didn’t know it either. The song goes “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” and some of my early classmates then and all the way through high school learned their lessons of subtle and not so subtle racism all too well. Sadly, the misconceptions about who I was and what my background was didn’t end until I went away to college (which is a whole other story.)
I am sure that Senator Harris can share similar and maybe even more stark stories of having to grow a thick skin at an early age. I also know that like me, her struggle didn’t end by going to Howard University. Black people can be uniquely hard on our own if we “aren’t black enough” or come from a mixed heritage. Although I was at Princeton with Michelle (Robinson) Obama and and remember her well (I was two years behind her; we are not in touch now), I never felt fully welcome at the Third World Center that was the center of her experience. I was not black enough. I came from a family where my cousins were of mixed heritage. I had attended largely white schools and my family lived in a white (historic colonial) neighborhood. Eventually, however, I found my way. I carved out lifetime friendships and I got my degree and I got out. Again, I’m sure Senator Harris could tell you stories.
Today, as an adult and as the Senior Minister of a predominantly white church in a predominantly white denomination in Cambridge, MA, there are times within the universe of that world when I still have to prove myself, explain myself, justify myself and claim and define my identity as an African American both among my white colleagues and my black ones. Racism is the original sickness of the United States. But I find my way. I have been extremely careful to cultivate support from people who don’t question or interrogate my blackness both outside and inside my church and denomination. These are people with whom I share the ability to see each other for the fullness of who we are and not for our connection to any social justice agenda. They don’t see me as “black because” or “black despite”, these are people who see me as “black and….” Life is too short.
Senator Kamala Harris is a black woman of Jamaican and Indian heritage. Get over it. She’s black, and paraphrasing her own words, she’s always been black and will always be black. No other candidate is having their ethnicity picked over like a chicken carcass or examined for tiny tears in their story that can become giant rips. Her experience has 100% been that of a black person in the United States…and frankly enormous parts of that experience suck. But as a Senator and potentially as President of the United States we get the benefit of her magic…brilliant, creative, resilient, compassionate, unflinching…Black Girl Magic…and there’s nothing like it. Senator Harris is completely dedicated to making the experience of black Americans like herself and the experience of all Americans better. She deserves the opportunity as much as any other candidate who is not burdened by the racist crap of white or black bigots.