COMMENTARY: Why it’s so important to recognize Kamala Harris as a woman of mixed race

Former U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris took the oath of office on Wednesday at Capitol Hill, becoming the 49th Vice-President of the United States in the Joe Biden administration.

Growing up as a girl of mixed race (Nigerian, Macedonian, Irish), I often felt torn between my ethnicities. I didn’t identify as Black, but I also didn’t identify as white.

Filling out voter forms, passport applications, and other documents that required checking off a box to indicate one’s ethnicity, I would always pause, disappointed by the lack of representation provided for people like myself.

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By checking the box marked “Black,” I felt as though I was disregarding my European roots, and “Caucasian” was never the right fit as I was a woman of colour. Sometimes, an “Other” box would be made available, but being regarded as “other” in society didn’t bode well for me as an accurate representation of my blended background either.

With the induction of Kamala Harris as the U.S. vice-president this week, many have been referring to Harris as the first “Black” or “African American” woman to hold this position in office. While this is an important and historical moment for women — and more specifically, women of colour — it also highlights the existing struggle to recognize multiracial people in society.

And just like politics, ethnicity is not something that can only be seen in black and white.

Harris is both South Asian and Jamaican, an important distinction to make for women of mixed race in order to equally honour both sides of their family. This distinction is also important for the benefit of the general public — those who look to Harris as an example of what leadership could look like for future generations. Girls of mixed race, who still today have very few familiar faces to look up to, can now look to Harris — America’s first female vice-president and woman of colour—and see someone who looks like them in a position of power.

During her victory speech on Nov. 7, Harris shared her appreciation for her mother, the woman she recognizes as being responsible for her presence on the presidential stage.

“I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, white, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight,” she said.

And Harris finished with a statement that resonated with many little girls around the world:

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

Harris knows the importance of representation and how it will impact future generations of women who wish to pursue positions of power just as she has done. And it’s time for us to do the same.

Recently, an infographic reflecting how Biden’s Cabinet compares with recent administrations was shared on social media, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the breakdown of ethnicities included “multiracial” — an important change that recognizes those of us who cannot check one box, but who also do not want to be regarded as “other” in today’s society.

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Here in Canada, many are making efforts to recognize and work towards cultural diversity, but are forgetting that the work to be done needs to include those of us who are of mixed race as well.

Diversity doesn’t just mean accepting and integrating people from one single culture, but also those of multiracial backgrounds as well.

Let’s start being more inclusive by making “Multiracial” a mandatory checkbox on forms, and take Harris’ lead in elevating the representation of people of colour, including those from mixed backgrounds as well.

Bianca Bujan is an award-winning writer and editor who covers travel, family, and food for various major print and online publications. She lives on Vancouver’s North Shore with her husband, three children, and Dalmatian, where she enjoys exploring the outdoors and snapping photos. Find her on Twitter @biancabujan and Instagram @bitsofbee.

 

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