When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential race, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked a black guest whether Harris is “seen as African-American.” The guest promptly assured a relieved Matthew: “Yes, I think she’s seen as African-American. The fact that she was at Howard University today … when she did her announcement press conference, she’s going to South Carolina in the first week — she’s really planting her feet in the African-American community.” Mother Jones magazine called Harris “a woman of color” who attended Howard University, where she “was inspired by a strong legacy of black achievement.”
Being “African-American” or “black” is an important factor to Democrats, for whom white men need not apply — unless you’re Joe Biden. But Matthews poses an interesting question. Harris was born in Oakland, California. “Kamala” is a Sanskrit name meaning “lotus.” Her mother is from India, her father from Jamaica. The Wall Street Journal describes Harris as “an African-American.” An Oprah Magazine piece, however, updated after Harris’ recent announcement, checked off several race/ethnicity boxes: “(Harris is) currently (California’s) first African-American senator and the country’s first South Asian-American senator. And now, with a 2020 run, she could be our first black female president.” So, she’s African-American, black and South Asian-American.
President Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, has a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. Obama calls himself, as do the media, “black” or “African-American.” Occasionally, he is referred to as “biracial,” but not often.
So, do the media describe Harris and Obama as black because that’s their preference? Is that the rule, then — that one is racially described the way one wants? If so, explain Tiger Woods.
Woods, like Harris and Obama, is also a blend of races and ethnicities. In 2002, ESPN wrote: “For the record, he is one-quarter Thai, one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Caucasian, one-eighth African American and one-eighth Native American. Woods, however, according to ESPN, refers to himself as “Cablinasian,” a word “he coined to identify who he is, a one-size-fits-all definition of his CAucasian, BLack, American INdian and ASIAN ancestries.”
Woods’ mother, Kultida Woods, says Tiger is “more Asian.” She added, “A mother raises her son, and he had an Asian mother.'” But ESPN quoted Karen Narasaki, the former executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who said: “Tiger Woods can call himself what he wants to call himself — to most of America, he’s black. Asian-American groups have thought to give him awards, but as far as I know he hasn’t showed up to pick one up.” In 2016, ESPN, along with other media outlets, ran an Associated Press story that described a book Woods planned to write about “when he broke 20 records and became the first player of black heritage to win a major championship.” So much for Kultida’s perspective, so much for Woods’ preference for “Cablinasian.” “Black” it is.
So if one parent is black, the child may be a blend of races, ethnicities and even nationalities, but he or she is also “black.” Right?
What of tennis star Naomi Osaka, who just won the Australian Open? To ESPN, she is “the first tennis player from Japan to reach No. 1 in the rankings.” USA Today called her “the first Japanese player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam trophy.” Osaka was born in Japan, but she has lived in America since age 3 and has dual Japanese and American citizenship. She says she “grew up in a Haitian household in New York,” where she lived with her grandmother. Her mother is from Japan, her father from Haiti. She moved to Florida at age 9, still lives there, and often visits her grandparents in Long Island, New York. The U.K.’s Telegraph wrote, “Osaka is proud of her Haitian and American heritage but plays under the Japanese flag despite not being able to speak the language fluently.” But one must search very hard for a news article describing Osaka as “black,” despite her Haitian father. Even then, news outlets painstakingly describe her as “half-Haitian” or the daughter of a “Japanese mother” and a “Haitian” or “Haitian-American” father.
The point of all of this, of course, is what difference does it make? Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we recently celebrated, spoke of his vision of a society where “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” A black childhood friend of mine married a white woman. “Linda” sought to enroll their son in a well-regarded school that touted its “diversity.” It required an entrance exam, and, if the student scored high enough, an interview with the parents. During the interview, the school admissions administrator looked at the son and asked, “What race is he?” Linda replied, “What do you need?”