The United States has its first female vice president in Kamala Harris, a person who embodies multiple identities: She is a lawyer, she’s a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, she embraces being called “Momala” by her stepchildren, and she’s a graduate of a historically Black university. She is also the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India; she identifies herself as Black and South Asian.
The nuances of describing someone who doesn’t fit neatly into a single category is a struggle when space is at a premium, as it is with news alerts.
When Harris was selected as Joe Biden’s running mate in August, news organizations didn’t immediately reflect the full scope of her background.
A tale of 5 push alerts:
3 refer to Kamala Harris as Black. Post: woman of color.
CNN specifies her South Asian heritage. pic.twitter.com/B02KwqDd0V
— Doris N. Truong (@DorisTruong) August 11, 2020
The New York Times and The Associated Press both referred to her as “the first Black woman” on a major party ticket. The Washington Post called her “a woman of color.” CNN specified that she was “the first Black and South Asian American woman” up for vice president.
On Inauguration Day, news organizations did a better job describing Harris as she self-identifies; the AP, CNN and The Washington Post all referenced her racial background.
RELATED TRAINING: Dignity and precision in language
The Wall Street Journal focused on the functions she will perform as Biden’s No. 2, noting that she will cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate and also be a face of the Democratic Party.
Conversations about how to describe Harris in news stories have been going on since at least 2003, when she was elected San Francisco district attorney. Last year, the Asian American Journalists Association and the South Asian Journalists Association noted that context is essential when discussing Harris’ racial identity.
As Harris settles into her new identity at the U.S. Capitol, the barriers she broke to get there will be less significant than the actions she takes as a politician. We will know her as the U.S. vice president, no further qualifiers needed.