Can we have a conversation about Kamala Harris's ideas? | Kenan Malik

We expect Donald Trump to question her Americanness, but the left is equally desperate to label her

So, who is Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s pick for US vice-president? No, not what does Harris believe, or what are her policies, or what is her record? Rather, the debate is about her identity.

Harris was born in Oakland, California. Her father is Jamaican, her mother Indian. For the right, that raises question about whether she is really American. For many on the left, it’s a question of whether she is black or African American or Asian American.

For years, conservatives questioned whether Barack Obama was “really” American, a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump did much to promote. Now he has raised the same question about Harris, after Newsweek published a tortuous article by conservative law professor John Eastman, querying Harris’s eligibility to run.

No one doubts she was born in America, but the fact that her parents were immigrants has allowed conspiracy-mongers to question her Americanness. This has nothing to do with the facts or US law and everything to do with racialised notions of what it is to be American.

Meanwhile, there is a fierce debate on the left over Harris’s racial identity. She defines herself as “black”. Many use “black” and “African American” interchangeably but don’t consider Harris “African American” because she does not have an American slave background. Some Indian commentators have claimed that racism has led to her not being perceived as “Asian American”.

Kamala Harris is a case study in the banality and futility of identity labels. Not only can such labels not comprehend the messiness of reality, but the insistence that everyone must be placed in an identity box eases the way for those peddling reactionary claims about belonging.

Perhaps some day we can start debating her beliefs and policies?

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist


Kenan Malik

The GuardianTramp

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