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Published On: Fri, Aug 21st, 2020

On white liberalism, Kamala Harris, and the symbols of race and status

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By Roger House

As Kamala Harris accepts the Democratic nomination for vice president, it has been painful to watch Black women politicians feign excitement. They no doubt recognize that she is a complex symbol and standard-bearer for Black political accomplishment. Some may even view her as a throwback to an earlier time and image that Black women have challenged to affirm their own existence.
First, the Harris selection revisits an old stereotype of racial preference and social acceptance: fair skin, straight hair, a fluid racial background that overlooks the traditional Black experience, and an easy appeal to the inclusive sensibility of white liberals.
Second, the Democratic selection paints Black women leaders with more authentic experience in a corner. It forces them to embrace a historical first that undercuts their own natural beauty, culture, talents and hard-work to earn a place in history. At the same time, it allows Harris to ride on the coattails of the civil rights achievements that she had nothing to do with. Foiled again! The Black political class in Washington is blindsided by its lack of confidence and over-dependence on white liberals. That means they are party to their own undoing.
In these racially divisive times, the VP choice sent a not-so-subtle message to the Black folk: it catered to an old social psychology of colorism and status in American culture – often defined as the “slave mentality” or the “colonial mind” in part.
In 1917, Edward B. Reuter, a University of Chicago sociology student who became a leading theorist in the field of race, explored issues of color and social status in the pioneer work, “The Superiority of the Mulatto.” The article in the American Journal of Sociology documented the advantages of the light-skin class in American society. Reuter studied a population descended from the unions of blacks and whites; in these times, however, the symbolism works for people with non-traditional racial backgrounds like Harris as well.
Surely, the political class of Black women was crushed when the Biden campaign bypassed numerous qualified figures representing authentic Black districts? These included the Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, Stacey Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and, to a lesser extent as it regards districts, the former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.
Even more, these talented women politicians were put in the awful position of runner up contestants in the old Miss America pageant. They had to stand in the figurative public spotlight with tight smiles and applaud as media pundits crowned Harris as the “first African-American, first Asian-American, and first woman of color” vice presidential nominee.
Just as troubling have been the comments of pundits that Black girls now have a role model to emulate. Such casual statements, though well intentioned, ignore the reality of colorism and the struggle of some dark skinned girls to be confident in a white culture. Such angst has been explored in the documentary, “Dark Girls,” produced by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry in 2011.
The everyday Black folk, after enjoying the authentic biography of former first lady Michelle Obama, will have a difficult time embracing the story of Harris. Yes, her father was a Jamaican immigrant but the mindset of colorism in that society has been well-documented. Marcus Garvey, a dark-skinned Jamaican and Pan-African advocate, famously exposed its flawed emphasis on lightness. He called on people to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” – a call taken up by the reggae singer Bob Marley in “Redemption Song,” a ballad about triumph over slavery.
Her father came to America to study and married another immigrant from India, also a former British colony with the problem of colorism. Its culture placed at the bottom rank of society the Dalit caste, a population known for its African heritage. As an adult, Harris chose to marry a white man who stays out of the political limelight and may surprise some Black supporters.
To be clear, the right to free association and love must be protected; however, the symbols of race and status do have force in society. And symbols that may be embraced by white liberals as inclusive can be stinging to the sensitivities of the Black folk. Which returns us to the question of Black political dependency on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. How many times must they be kicked to the side before they understand the need to escape the dominance of one political party and to create an independent political power base in Georgia?
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” This commentary is reprinted courtesy of The Hill.

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