August 11, 2020

This article was originally published on February 10, 2004.

When Kamala Harris was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney in December, local press accounts made special mention that she was the “first black woman” to win that high office.

It is common journalistic practice to note pioneering facts about prominent public figures — the first woman this, the first black that, the first Latino whatever, the first openly gay something or other. It’s either a sign of social progress or “political correctness.”

But how accurate and how relevant are such ethnic and gender labels? In Harris’ case, not totally accurate and somewhat relevant.

A minority of the stories I read about Harris leading up to her election provided information about her mixed ethnic background. Her father is black; her mother is of South Asian descent. I even recall reading that Harris is proud of her partial Asian heritage.

But most stories, when they used an ethnic label, limited her to being a “black woman.” Why was that? Doesn’t that simplistic — and misleading — label deny part of who she is? And why is any kind of ethnic labeling needed, in the first place?

Racial labeling is controversial

It is worth noting that racial and ethnic labeling is a journalistic tradition, usually loaded with controversy. That is certainly the case with slapping a racial or ethnic label on crime suspects. The press has been somewhat schizophrenic on this particular practice. Once it was common to put a racial or ethnic label on criminal suspects. Then it was verboten. Now one sees such labels creeping back into stories.

Why may ethnic labeling be needed? Well, it’s California in the early 21st century.

Diversity is part of our history

The Golden State has a rich, and racially and ethnically contentious history, ever since James Marshall discovered gold near Sutter’s Mill in the California foothills in 1848. That monumental event attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) ballooned from a sleepy little village to a rousing, wild frontier city almost overnight. Its population — and that of the region surrounding it — became more “multicultural” in a matter of months, but power resided with white men who took charge of the major public and private institutions. (Native Americans and Spaniards were numerous before the Gold Rush.)

That’s ancient history. What about now? Even more so, California and San Francisco are “multicultural” to a fare-thee-well. Latinos, or Hispanics, are a major presence in California. So, of course, are people who trace their ancestral roots to Europe. Asians and African Americans are also a significant, but less numerous, presence. People with West Asian roots (Persians or Iranians, Afghanis, and so-called Middle Easterners) are in California in growing numbers too.


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Does blackness trump other identities?

With that kind of racial and ethnic diversity and with many political, social, and cultural issues related to race and ethnicity still largely unresolved, it is no surprise that the local press makes it a habit of identifying a newly elected public official like Kamala Harris by ethnicity. But why is she mostly “a black woman” to some Bay Area reporters and editors? Why don’t most press stories, when they choose to label her ethnically, tell the whole truth?

The same thing happens to Tiger Woods, the golf superstar. In most early stories about him after his meteoric rise as a professional golfer, he was called an African American. That is only partially true. His mother is Thai. His father is only partially African-American. Some stories about Woods’ ethnic background say his father has a mixture of races and ethnicities, including Chinese. That makes Tiger Woods more Asian than black, yet, according to most news-media labeling, he is black.

Not only blacks and whites

I suppose Harris is called a “black woman” because it reflects an old black-white paradigm of U.S. race relations. For the eastern half of the United States, especially the Deep South, that model has been dominant throughout most of the country’s history. In California and other western states (including Hawaii), the black-white scenario has never been the governing model.

I am not here to deny the profound significance of black-white racial relations to the nation’s history. I realize that labeling people who descended from African slaves has a complex history. I also realize that many, perhaps most, African Americans aren’t “pure” black African but are of mixed racial and ethnic heritage too. One aspect of that complexity has to do with the so-called “one-drop” rule that deemed that a person in the United States who had “one drop” of “African blood” was considered “black,” even if he or she also had “white” or “Native American” blood. The one-drop rule and other aspects of how white society regarded “black people” reflected institutional racism that stubbornly hangs on today, in perhaps less overt ways than the old Jim Crow era.

I am here to try to help set the record straight as it relates to California and western U.S. history. People of Asian descent — Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos mostly in the last half of the 19th century — and people of Mexican background are integral to California and the West’s history. So, of course, are Native Americans of various tribal nations. And black people too, but not to the degree African Americans have been in the southern and eastern U.S.


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How should the press treat ethnic/racial labels?

As much as I wish we lived in a “colorblind” society, we don’t, so some form of race and ethnic labeling is inevitable. This is so even though some political thinkers argue that race isn’t a scientific, but a social, concept. Whatever it is, “race” and ethnicity continue to be profound forces in our political, economic, social and cultural lives.

The United States has made impressive progress in racial, ethnic, and gender relations over the past 40 or so years. But we have not reached the social “promised land” yet. That means there are and will continue to be public issues with racial, ethnic, religious, and gender implications. And these are issues that the news media need to write and comment about.

I am reluctant to offer a journalistic Top Ten list on How to Label Someone by Race, Ethnicity, Religion, or Gender With Sensitivity, Compassion, and Historical Accuracy. There are style guides around, offered by various “minority” journalism associations, but some of those suggestions are too prescriptive and pedantic for my tastes.

The relevancy test

There is a relevancy test, however, that I believe should govern a journalistic ethnic or racial label. Journalists ought to engage in active discussions about the use of a label like “the first black woman” when they report about Kamala Harris or whether it is relevant to put a racial or ethnic label on a criminal suspect. Answer the question, “Is it relevant to this story that we label someone by race, ethnicity, gender, religion?” If it is, then get it right. Don’t leave off some of a person’s heritage.

On the matter of labeling a criminal suspect by race or ethnicity, the test should be more precise and bear high standards. Generalizations about racial or ethnic characteristics, as well as vague height and weight features, are virtually useless and can feed negative stereotypes of certain people. Moreover, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. If, however, law-enforcement officials have precise and detailed descriptions and if a suspect is considered a threat to public safety, then I would say an ethnic or racial label is warranted as part of a physical description.

Mixed-race identifications can be wordy or awfully cumbersome. Maybe reporters should avoid shorthand descriptions and instead construct a sentence or two to describe someone’s racial or ethnic background, if it is deemed necessary to do so. In an increasingly nuanced and complex world, brevity may not be a virtue.

William Wong is author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America (Temple University Press), http://www.yellowjournalist.com. For more than 30 years, he was a reporter, columnist, and editor for, among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, and Asian Week. In the mid-1980s, he served as the ombudsman for The Oakland Tribune.

This article appears courtesy of Stanford’s “Grade the News” Project. An earlier version appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Currently a freelance writer and author, I've been a journalist for more than 30 years, with The Wall Street Journal, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle,…
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  • She is Jamaican, journalists still call her African American.

    • She was Born in American, That makes her American. Her Bith certificate says that her Race is Black. Thats because he was Black. You see Jamaican is not a Race, it’s A nationality.

  • She identifies with the Black experience. Also, when people see her, they see a Black woman. It’s the same reason why I identify as black although I am black and Latinx. No one sees the Latinx in me, but they see my blackness. I don’t feel the need to correct them. It only discredits or dishonors my blackness to correct them and say that “I am not only black, I”m X”. My Blackness is sufficient.

  • @ilochonwuo

    This article was originally published on February 10, 2004.

    So, to your question as to why the author did not make this post when Obama became president?

    He did. He made it over 4 years before Barack Obama was elected. The article was of particular importance then, and again is now because of Kamala Harris, and her notable appointments of position.

  • [Edited for clarity] Whenever this debate arises about the identity of multi-racial people the historical context seems to always be left out of the discussion and blacks seem to be left holding the bulk of the blame for claiming or rejecting someone. Your position of course should be respected since only you can give a voice to your point of view. I just question a point of view that ignores or gives no sign of understanding the culture they are living in from a historical sense. For instance, hypodescent is a classification method where multi-racial people are assigned the race of whichever racial group that is seen as the lowest class. In American culture blacks were sometimes mixed and state laws mandated that these people be classified as black. In the 20th century this was known as the “One Drop Rule”.

    Ever since the first use of the word white on legal documents in 1681 there was an intentional distinction being drawn between who was and was not white. This was not blacks just trying assert the importance of their race over another is my point. It didn’t matter what you were mixed with, you were mulatto if you weren’t white. Look at Crispus Attucks from the Boston Massacre. When we hear mulatto we think Black person mixed with white, right? But he wasn’t mixed with white at all. He was mixed with Native American and black yet some historical accounts called him mulatto or just black. Don’t think for an instance blacks had a say in that decision.

    Again, my point is blacks have grown up in this culture of being told if you can’t “pass” for white, you are black or if you’ve got even a drop of black blood in your family tree you are “tainted” (J. Edgar Hoover comes to mind). It was a “bad” thing in the public’s eyes, not something intended to bring pride to the black race. You felt what it meant to be black which meant you were like family.

    Not until more immigrants came to America did that begin to change. It became obvious history was not taught on the subject. Foreigners and second or third generation immigrants viewed the default classification of hyphenated black peoples as placing importance on being black over their ethnicity or blacks claiming everything just out of insecurity. Well, that stings because it says you don’t know the culture that you assimilated too. It wasn’t always the case that you could even deny your blackness and get an applause for choosing your identity. I’ll end with this. Please understand the historical context of the topics dealing with race in America before diving in.

  • Whenever this debate arises about the identity of multi-racial people the historical context seems to always be left out and blacks seem to be left holding the bulk of the blame for claiming or rejection of the person. Your position of course should be respected since only you can give a voice to your point of view. I just question any point of view that ignores or gives no sign of understanding the culture they are living in from a historical point of view. For instance, hypodescent is a classification method where multi-racial people are assigned the race of whichever racial group that is seen as the lowest class. In American culture blacks were sometimes mixed and state laws mandated that these people be classified as black. In the 20th century this was known as the “One Drop Rule”. Ever since the first use of the word white on legal documents 1681, there was an intentional distinction being drawn between who was and was not white. This was not blacks just trying assert the importance of their race is my point. It didn’t matter what you were mixed with either. You were mulatto if you weren’t white. Look at Crispus Attucks for instance. When we hear mulatto we think Black person mixed with white. But he wasn’t mixed with white at all. He was mixed with Native American and black. Some historical accounts just called him black. Don’t think for an instance blacks had a say in that decision.

    So my point is blacks have grown up in this culture of being told if you can’t “pass” as for white you are black, or if you’ve got even a drop of black blood in your family tree you are “tainted” (J. Edgar Hoover comes to mind). It was a “bad” thing in the public’s eyes and you felt what it meant to be black which meant you were family. Until more immigrants have came to America and history was not taught on the subject. Foreigners and second or third generation immigrants viewed the default classification of hyphenated black peoples as placing importance on being black. As blacks claiming everything just out of insecurity. Well, that stings because it says you don’t know the culture that you assimilated too. It wasn’t always the case that you could even deny your blackness and get an applause for choosing your identity. I’ll end with please understand the historical context of the topics dealing with race in America before diving in.

  • Once I read the title, I knew the author had to be Asian. I’m a black African. Listen, man. Before going on a rant about racial identity, have you considered what Kamala self-identifies as? Remember, these are all labels, and one can reasonably ascribe to one. Dave Chappelle’s sons look more Asian than black, and they definitely cannot fit into a black posse smoother than it would for Kevin Hart’s wife or Tiger Woods. On the other hand, Dave’s daughter would have to tell me she’s part Asian for me even to notice. My point? Labels as flawed as they are, majorly boil down to physical appearance. Hence, speak for yourself and not Kamala on what the public should label her with. If I am candid, the first time that I saw her, she appeared a light-skin black woman to me.

    The question that I have for you is why you did not make this post when Obama became president? Why did you not tell the whole world that we should acknowledge his white side and respect his caucasian ancestry? Obviously, white people lost the right to make such an argument after slavery. Anyway, Kamala being black has not been a huge problem for you until she has a shot at Vice-presidency, and now the Asians want representation?

    In all fairness, this country historically remains a bipolar black and white nation, and that’s unfair. So, that is the only way that I can sympathize with the point that you are trying to make. But again, in a game of rock paper scissors, black beats Asian. Labels that both do not truly capture the relationship she has with either side of her heritage, but that’s the messed-up world we live in, and maybe you can do something about it.

    • Why does Black beat Asian?

    • Just to reply to your question why the author didn’t make this post about Obama…
      You have the answer to that right up there at the top, “This article was originally published on February 10, 2004.”.
      That was the year Kamala Harris was appointed District Attorney of San Francisco (2004–2011).
      Barack Obama was appointed Illinois State Senator that year.

      There might be a relevance in your question about why this article wasn’t about Obama, but I’m absolutely 100% sure that it wasn’t written on the premises you set out in your comment above: “…Kamala being black has not been a huge problem for you until she has a shot at Vice-presidency, and now the Asians want representation?”.
      Since the article is 16 years old, I doubt that.

    • The same identification conundrum goes for Naomi Osaka. Half black, half Asian. Grew up in a Haitian household, represents Japan even though she can’t speak fluently. Yet, it is hard to find an article that explicitly calls her a black athlete. Black people did not complain. Why? She looks more Asian than black. Again, the physical appearance I was talking about. In an ideal world, biracial people should celebrate their dual heritage privately and publicly. In reality, everyone wants to put a label on you real quick, and you get slapped with what you look like and (partly) what you ask for. I would know, I’ve met “white” people that turned out to have a dark-skinned biological black parent.

    • Harris identifies as black among the national stage and among black constituents. She identifies as Indian among Asian fundraisers and when speaking to Asian constituents. Basically she identifies with whatever ingratiates herself to her audience. This has been her history in California elections. But mostly, this has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with the media’s constant erasure of Asian identity as POC. Why should the author have to defend Obama’s white side of his biraciality? Him being Asian doesn’t mean he needs to defend whiteness. He’s specifically talking about his own racial struggles. And it’s incredibly problematic for you to assume her blackness as being a problem for an Asian author. That’s a strawman’s argument that you’re projecting onto the author without any evidence. Listen, Asians have always been the invisible minority in America. It’s how the model minority myth has been successfully perpetuated, and why Asian milestones are never recognized. It’s the reason it took until 2012 before an Asian made the cover of GQ magazine. Demanding Asian representation from the media is not diametrically opposed to recognizing black achievement any more or less than the reverse. This is about Asian invisibility in the media, and these pieces are something everyone should champion as POC without getting into this mindset that you’re attacking another race. That nonsense has to stop.

    • “Once I read the title, I knew the author had to be Asian. I’m a black African.”

      Yes, so what and why the need to begin with a patently offensive statement? What constructive function does your statement serve? This being a journalism website, where presumably the “accuracy, clarity and BREVITY” dictum is still regarded mandates for good, quality journalism, please pare down the verbosity and get to the point. Your point here was that racial hierarchies exist and you support them as status quo.

      The point of the writer, the Asian writer if you will, was to challenge, and rightfully so in my view, exactly that.

      Lastly, on the Obama years, we know well his story; he was raised by a single white woman and her white mother for whom Obama had great affection. We also know the narrative of young Barry having grown up in South East Asia and that his sister is half Asian.

      Frankly, I am confused as to what it is you seek to achieve here in your comments.

  • You may want to take into consideration and respect the choice of the individual. In LGBTQ rights we advocate that people have a right to be called what they feel comfortable with. Kamala has said she identifies as Black. I have lived in the state in India where her mother’s family is from…. Some people there consider themselves black. What people identity as is their right.