Among the latest Trump-family-induced, race-related controversies is the issue of whether Kamala Harris is really “black,” whether her Jamaican heritage disqualifies her from being a legitimate “black” American. This raises an astounding number of ironies and reminds me of the values expounded in the literature of “passing,” in which a character wishes to appear a different race than they are, most commonly a black person or another person of color trying to “pass” for white. A good example forever enshrined in popular culture is Imitation of Life, a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst that was made into a movie twice, first with Claudette Colbert in 1934, and again in 1959 with Lana Turner. In a nutshell, the Negro housemaid has a recipe for pancake batter (remind you of something?) that the beautiful white heroine markets as her own and becomes wealthy, while the creator continues to serve as her maid, a scenario people took seriously back then, In the meantime, the maid has a light-skinned, mixed race daughter who, as the ridiculously melodramatic plot unfolds, tries to “pass” as white so she can marry a wealthy white boy and is ashamed that her mother is black. The daughter is considered evil for potentially ruining the white boy’s life through deception, and the mother’s death scene conveys the message that blackness is an unforgivable sin for which you can never make amends. In addition to the ludicrous, outdated premise that blackness is something to be ashamed of, the story illustrates the peculiar idea that someone with the slightest bit of African ancestry is automatically “tainted” as black, the notion that blackness is a pollutant of the white ideal.
Based on a tradition rooted in slavery and the sexual exploitation of the Southern plantation system, many people with a small amount of African ancestry consider themselves African American. I hope they are proud to do so, but neither should they fear being accused of trying to “pass” for something they’re not—given that more than 50% of their genetic makeup probably IS.
The point of all this is that we should all reject the notion that Kamila Harris is black OR not black. It has been shown that race is an outdated social construct. People don’t always appear as their ancestry would lead us to believe, and we should stop worrying about ancestry—people should be judged by the content of their character, not the makeup of their genetic material.