Kamala Harris’s Blackness Isn’t Up for Debate

Her identity and motives are being unfairly challenged on all sides.

Kamala Harris
Leah Millis / Reuters

I would never have put Snoop and Tupac Shakur on the list of things that could potentially harm Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential bid. But this week, two of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time unwillingly played a part in the latest attack on Harris’s blackness, which came after the California Democrat’s appearance on the popular morning-radio show The Breakfast Club.

Harris engaged in a 40-minute-plus, wide-ranging conversation with the hosts Charlamagne Tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy, detailing an agenda focused on issues disproportionately affecting African Americans: the staggering rate at which black women are dying in childbirth, mass incarceration, and poverty.

Unfortunately for Harris, her stances on these matters were drowned out by a dumb headline. Call it #AllEyezOnMeGate. Charlamagne asked Harris whether she’d ever smoked marijuana. She admitted that she’d smoked in college—and did indeed inhale. At some point, Envy asked Harris about her favorite music. But before she could respond, Charlamagne jokingly asked Harris about what she liked to listen to when she imbibed. Harris laughed off Charlamagne’s question and instead told Envy that some of her favorite artists were Snoop and ’Pac. She also mentioned her affinity for Cardi B.

But when the story went viral, the takeaway was that Harris had smoked marijuana while listening to ’Pac and Snoop. With the help of the typical rush to judgment on social media, and some masterful framing by Fox & Friends, a fake controversy was born. The claim was that Harris lied about her weed experience to curry favor with the black community.

Had the critics bothered to watch her entire Breakfast Club interview, they would have seen just how foolish these assumptions were. But then again, since Harris announced her decision to run for president, the attacks on her blackness have only seemed to gain momentum. Why would it change now?

It’s always problematic to try to define blackness, but the strange part about the reaction to Harris is that her identity and motives are being challenged by both sides. One reason her campaign booked her on The Breakfast Club was that it reportedly saw this as a sound strategy to send a direct signal to those African Americans who just don’t trust that Harris is being authentic.

When she announced that she was running for president at her alma mater, Howard University, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the moment should have been touching and significant. Instead, there was a bubbling sentiment that Harris was, again, doing that only to suck up to African Americans. Forget about her personal connection to Howard, or how a black woman running for president extends the legacy of the civil-rights movement.

Harris should be questioned about her record as a senator and an attorney general, and her tenure as San Francisco’s district attorney, but too much of the conversation about her is instead dominated by insecurities that have nothing to do with determining whether she would be a good president.

The economist and author Boyce Watkins, who is black, tweeted, “If #KamalaHarris went to an #HBCU, what do you think led her to marry a white man?” Harris had to address this in her Breakfast Club interview. She said she’s married to her white husband because she loves him.

Imagine that.

In a nod to the racist birther conspiracy that enveloped President Barack Obama, a tweet claiming that Harris wasn’t eligible to run for president because of her immigrant parents went viral. It has been repeated as fact so often that Harris is now forced to explain her ethnic background.

Was nothing learned from Obama’s run for president? He faced the same inane, pointless questions about his mixed-race identity as Harris. Just like Obama, Harris has exposed narrow-minded views of blackness with her presidential run. Harris is a multiracial woman who was born in Oakland, went to high school in Montreal, and worshipped with both Hindus and Baptists. She’s a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and yet, by her account, knows how to make an incredible Bolognese and a mean pot of collard greens. If the criterion for running for president is being authentically American, people have to accept that this is what that looks like.

“I think they don’t understand who black people are, because if you do, if you walked on Hampton’s campus or Howard’s campus, or Morehouse, or Spelman or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, for the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people,” Harris said on The Breakfast Club. “So I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are. Some folks have a limited vision of who we are as black people. That’s on them. That’s not on us.”