Being mixed-race in America: From Kamala Harris to Tiger Woods, experts explain meaning of identity

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Tiger Woods, President Barack Obama, Meghan Markel and most recently Democratic candidate for vice president Senator Kamala Harris have been thrust into the spotlight with much of the attention over their mixed race.

But why is it that we have this fascination with labeling those of mixed-race as one way or another? Tiger Woods was often referred to only as a "Black golfer" not an Asian one?

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This prompted ABC7 News Anchor Dion Lim to dive deeper into the meaning of identity. Not only how we perceive it but how it should be accepted.

As soon as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Oakland native Kamala Harris as his running mate- the questions started swirling- around her identity.

Ronald Sundstrom, a professor of Philosophy & African American Studies at the University of San Francisco has studied identity for decades.

"Communities are going to want to gravitate toward figures who they think represent them. They want to be able to claim their community as a way to showing importance of belonging," he said via Zoom.

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But should the public be the ones to dictate these titles?

"No, I do not think that's right. People seem to be under the impression that everyone gets one label and this label is for life." continues Sundstrom, who himself is mixed race: Black, Filipino and white. He is acutely aware of the challenges incorrect labels can pose.

"It certainly felt burdensome to live by other people's expectations of me. That's a very common phenomenon experience mixed-race people report."

Professor Sundstrom says, by giving others labels they didn't assign themselves, we de-legitimize people's race, which is a form of xenophobia. Accusations toward Kamala Harris and Barack Obama of not being "Black enough"- are perfect examples.

"Accusations of...they're not really X so they're not really American. Those two things came together in a really funky way. We don't do that to other groups."

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Ron and others who study the issues of mixed race say the need to understand identity is not the same as your blood makeup. That identity is a product of your surroundings.

"We might hint on the multiple languages we speak. Or the different culinary traditions and that we are our religious tradition that we participate in, right? Maybe I have a Christmas tree and a Hannukah. I don't see why not! If you want to enjoy good soul food dinner and get down with some lumpia and adobo, ha, I don't see what the problem is!" smiles Sundstrom.

Kamala Harris is Indian and Jamaican and has claimed both equally and has referred to herself as "Simply American".

Wei Meng Dariotis is an Asian American studies professor and Director for the Center of Equity and Excellence at San Francisco State. She is not only Chinese American, Greek and Swedish but is married to a Black man.

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"I can't tell you how many times in my life from childhood I was asked on a daily basis "what are you?" says Dariotis.

She says the accurate representation of those who are mixed-race is crucial to our communities. Dariotis played a role in getting the US Census- to allow respondents to check all the necessary identification boxes...not just one during surveying.

"Data on who we are determines what resources are available to us!" she exclaims.

Whether it be data or daily interactions, some parting words from Professor Sundstrom on the path to a more inclusive society:

"Be yourself and live your life authentically and do not necessarily accept the scripts the other people trust upon you."
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