Opinion | The politics of being biracial: Obama, Harris

Opinion by Mikayla Tillery
March 3, 2021, 9:50 p.m.

After reading Hannah H. Kim’s insight into multiracialism, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her discussions of monoracial normativity, colorism and group membership. In her article, Kim explores what it means to be multiracial in the context of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. Although her article was insightful, I found two main considerations needed to contextualize privilege within biracial identities: hypodescent and the social construction of race. 

It’s important to consider that racial ambiguity is not synonymous with multiracialism. In her article, Kim addresses the issue of monoracial normativity without acknowledging that we enforce the racial binary on biracial people as well. She cites a study claiming that: “Multiracialism allows individuals to identify with different racial groups depending on what is most advantageous.” For truly racially ambiguous people, this might be true. But it is not true for nonambiguous biracials like me and the 21% of biracial people who have felt outside pressure to call themselves one race. We have never been able to choose what race we want to be perceived as. That choice has always been made for us. 

When we look at race, we have to consider that, unlike ancestry, it is a social construct. This means, in its most basic form, that race is less about biology and more about perception. Even by using terms like monoracial and biracial, we inadvertently validate race as an objective truth instead of something that is constructed. The same biracial person could be considered Black in the United States, colored in South Africa and white in Brazil. Because of this, it’s impossible to talk about multiracialism in the United States without considering the lasting implications of hypodescent, especially in reference to biracial people with African ancestry like Obama and Harris. 

Studies have found that biracial people today are viewed as their lower-status parent group, which is derived from the concept of hypodescent, or the “one-drop rule.” During chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the one-drop rule reasoned that anyone with traceable Black ancestry was to be assigned as Black. We see this with Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis and Booker T. Washington who all came from mixed-race ancestry but were classified as Black. When reflecting today, it is easy to spot how our construction of race in 2021 is less rigid than in the past, but our perceptions are still rooted in hypodescent.

With the one-drop rule in mind, biracial people who aren’t wholly racially ambiguous will inherently be grouped into their most marginalized identity even today. A Pew Research Center study that Kim cites in her article claims that “69% of [multiracial adults with a Black background] say most people would view them as Black or African American.” This isn’t true for all biracial people, namely white-and-Asian biracials, but it is indicative of a larger issue within biracial discourse. 

According to Arnold K. Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard, and James Sidanius, a professor of psychology and African and African-American studies at Harvard, our perceptions of biracial people are closely tied to our perception of traditional racial hierarchy, which “assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and Blacks at the bottom.” This explains why media outlets tended to depict Harris as Black before South Asian, and why Obama was never described as the first biracial president. 

When it comes to cases like Obama, biracial individuals that are half-Black and half-white are nearly always grouped as Black — if not perceived as Black and “whatever else” — so identifying him accurately almost feels like erasure to an extent. Many of my Black family members fall between the spectrum of 60-90% Black, although they are technically biracial, will identify as exclusively Black if they have the phenotypes associated with Blackness, and not just when it’s “convenient.” In reference to the earlier Pew study, 70% of adults who have a multiracial background will identify as monoracial. The portrayal of biracial people as opportunistic chameleons who chose a race based on the occasion is overstated. 

That said, there is data that shows that racial ambiguity is not created equally for all biracial people. A study by Ho and Sidanius “found that one-quarter-Asian individuals are consistently considered more white than one-quarter-black individuals.” In turn, “Black-white biracials had to be 68 percent white before they were perceived as white; the comparable figure for Asian-white biracials was 63 percent.” All of this suggests that racial ambiguity, or being believably white, is not the reality for most biracial people, even those with a closer proximity to whiteness, and because of this, group stereotyping is still a present issue. 

At the end of her article, Kim suggests that Harris and Obama’s “ability to transcend simple group membership — and the associated prejudice — might have been a factor that helped them.” At the same time, this contradicts an earlier statement: “Not that multiracial individuals experience less discrimination [than monoracial people]” with her going on to describe the use of slurs and profiling against multiracial Americans. Biracial people often benefit from comparative proximity to whiteness — often in the form of colorism, texturism or featurism — but the overwhelming majority are not able to fully transcend the group membership of their more salient identity, and therefore are subject to the prejudices associated with their lower-status parent group.

I would argue that in the cases of Harris and Obama’s respective elections there are a lot of moving pieces that made them more competitive than other monoracial candidates, including but not limited to their relatively ambiguous biracial identities, colorism, the conflicting yet harmful stereotypes between their Blackness and their immigrant families and respectability politics

In my opinion, an understanding of intersectionality contextualizes the statement: “Only 4% said having a mixed racial background has been a disadvantage in their life while 19% said it has been an advantage.” Like Harris and Obama, I benefit from colorism. That isn’t intrinsic to being biracial, but it is something that monoracial Black people tend not to face. There are aspects of being half-Black that are obstacles, just as being half-white comes with privileges. If the question is whether my mixed racial identity puts me at an advantage compared to my father, I’d say yes. Relative to my mother, I’d say no. In this situation, I have a harder time justifying that my relative privilege has more to do with multiracialism than colorism, but that’s not to say that the two are not interconnected.  

Being biracial in and of itself is too vague of a condition to be considered generally an advantage, but being perceived as having a specific dominant identity or marginalized identity can be beneficial or harmful, respectively. When biracial individuals are automatically associated with their lower-status parent group as opposed to having a choice in racial perception, it becomes clear that they will face the associated prejudice regardless of how they personally identify. Admittedly, this is often to a lesser extent than monoracial counterparts. 

The discussion of biracial identity and its social implications is vitally important to understanding race and privilege in America, but in that, we have to recognize that biracial people do not operate above race, but within it. Being biracial can mean eluding certain aspects of prejudice, but it doesn’t mean escaping the archaic and persistent one-drop rule. 

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