Opinion | Does it matter that Obama and Harris are multiracial?

Opinion by Hannah H. Kim
Feb. 18, 2021, 8:56 p.m.

Five years ago, I met a cute, racially ambiguous guy at a party in Escondido Village. As we were walking to brunch some weeks later, the cutie — who recently became my husband — stopped in his tracks and looked at me in disbelief. I had just asked, smiling: “So what are you, anyway?” (I know, I know — so cringy). Then began my long journey learning about monoracial normativity, the idea that we unreflectively assume having one race to be the “normal” way to be. Multiracialism challenges this cultural assumption.

Just as we begin to see everywhere a new word we’ve just learned, I began to see instances of multiracialism in more and more places, including now-vice-president (woot!) Kamala Harris. So, naturally, I made special note that Harris was described as the first Black woman and first Asian woman to be elected Vice President — just as Obama was described as the first Black man to be elected President.

What does it mean that the two minorities that made it into the highest elected offices of the United States have been multiracial, a group that makes up less than 7% of the American population? (US Census, Pew).  

I’m not interested in asking whether Harris or Obama are “Black enough” or “Asian enough,” nor do I want to weigh in on how they ought to self-identify. Instead, I want to ask what we ought to make of their shared multiracial identity. Did it help their political careers? If so, how? And what does that tell us about race and racism in America?  

The multiracial experience presents unique challenges and opportunities that don’t fully map on to monoracial experience. So, it matters that Obama and Harris are multiracial, if only to point out that it is too quick to point to their success as proof that racism is on the decline. 

Of course, a sample size of two is small, but their cases don’t seem like a coincidence, especially when we consider the small percentage of multiracial minorities in the context of the larger percentage of minorities in the U.S. overall (42%).  

The multiracial experience in America is different from the monoracial minority experience. Not that multiracial individuals experience less discrimination — a majority (55%) report having been subjected to racial slurs or jokes.  

Colorism, or discrimination against individuals with darker skin colors within (and beyond) the same racial group, affects both multiracial and monoracial groups. Colorism in the Black community has a documented history, and darker Hispanics report more experiences of discrimination than those with lighter skin. Multiracial minorities’ experiences differ significantly depending on their background heritage and resulting physical appearance: 40% of white-Black adults said they’ve been unfairly stopped by the police while only 6% of white-Asian individuals and 15% of white–Native-American adults experienced similar treatment.  

But there are aspects of multiracialism that don’t apply to monoracial minorities. Multiracial minorities face much higher rates of identity denial and questioning, and they face double discrimination, discrimination from both communities they are members of (think of critics saying Kamala Harris isn’t Indian enough or Black enough). Challenges to identities are associated with greater reports of depressive symptoms and stress.  

However, identity choice, often a key aspect of the multiracial experience, is a significant feature that monoracial minorities tend to lack. According to Tatum, only 39% of adults with mixed racial backgrounds consider themselves “multiracial,” the rest identifying with one of their parents’ race, protean (shifting back and forth) or transcendent (aracial). Naomi Zack, a philosopher of race, argues that multiracialism allows individuals to identify with different racial groups depending on what is most advantageous. Only 4% said having a mixed racial background has been a disadvantage in their life while 19% said it has been an advantage.  

Depending on their racial backgrounds, multiracial individuals might also have access to dominant culture (with a white parent) or positive “model minority” associations (with an Asian parent). Obama spent his formative teenage years with his white grandparents in Hawaii. Harris, whose mother is Indian, likely benefited from the positive stereotypes about Asians’ intellect and work ethic.  

Another difference comes from the way racism seems to work. Prejudice applies to individuals who are considered members of a certain group. Stereotyping is hurtful in part because the individual identity is erased and replaced with a negative group identity. Since multiracial individuals don’t fit neatly into race groups, it might be that group-based stereotypes don’t apply to them as easily.   

Why not think that multiracial individuals face double the prejudice, just as they’re subject to double discrimination from the communities they’re part of? A good and difficult question that we can’t fully answer without better data, but multiracial people are often perceived as “nonprototypical group members” even within the minority context. While this invites additional questions about identity, it might also discourage the crudest stereotyping based on clear group membership. Note that only 4% of multiracial individuals reported that having a mixed racial background has been a disadvantage in their life. I have a hard time imagining monoracial individuals’ answers will be equally rosy.  

To overlook Obama and Harris’s multiracial backgrounds, and the difference these backgrounds played in their political careers, is to forego the opportunity to ask potentially eye-opening questions about race and racism in America. Their multiracial backgrounds might suggest that they were successful precisely because of the way racism works in America by group-stereotyping. Of course they are, and had to be, high achievers; but their ability to transcend simple group membership — and the associated prejudice — might have been a factor that helped them. If so, Obama and Harris’s successes are beginnings of minorities’ improving status, not proof that all minorities (including monoracial ones) can “make it” in America.   

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Hannah H. Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department. She is also an Assistant Editor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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