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 antiquated beliefs 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” as 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 someone?) that the beautiful white heroine markets as her own and becomes wealthy, while the creator continues to serve as her maid, a scenario that people must have taken seriously back then. In the meantime, the maid has a light-skinned, mixed race daughter who is ashamed that her mother is Black and, as the ridiculously melodramatic plot unfolds, tries to “pass” as white so she can marry a wealthy white boy. The daughter is considered evil for potentially ruining the boy’s life by perpetrating a horrible deception, and the mother’s death scene conveys the inexplicable notion that blackness is an unforgivable sin for which you can never make amends.
Race is an Outdated Social Construct
In addition to the ludicrous, outdated premise that blackness is an affliction to be ashamed of, something that intrinsically makes you a lesser person, the story illustrates the peculiar idea that someone with the slightest bit of African ancestry is automatically “tainted”; in other words, 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 only a small amount of African ancestry are considered African American. I hope they are proud of their heritage rather than ashamed of it, but they should never be accused of trying to “pass” for something they’re not, given that more than 50% of their genetic makeup very probably IS white.
We should all reject the question of whether Kamala Harris is or is not Black and acknowledge that race is an outdated social construct. People don’t always appear as their ancestry might lead us to believe, and we should stop worrying about ancestry. As Martin Luther King famously put it, people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin—and certainly not the makeup of their genetic material.