The writer and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston is credited with once saying “all my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” The phrase, now fairly common, refers to the fact that those individuals who share racial or ethnic similarities (like skin tone) are not necessarily united as family or comrades in a unified struggle. Unfortunately, Black Americans continue to learn this lesson on grand political stages. Two such examples are Justice Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court and, more recently, Ben Carson’s appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Trump administration.
Now, the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as the vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic ticket raises many questions about the limits of perceiving political leaders as “skinfolk” and how expectations of kinship with Black communities runs counter to the possibilities of accountability.
Kamala Harris: Our “Fictive Aunt”
Perhaps it was actress Maya Rudolph’s hilarious parody of Harris on SNL that sparked the terminology, but the notion that Harris is “America’s cool aunt” has seemed to stick around. From this lighthearted idea, Harris’s relationship to Black communities, writ large, has taken on the character of “fictive kinship.” This term was introduced by sociologist Carol Stack in her 1974 study of Black families considered “urban poor” in the Midwest. It refers to the ways that Black families often include “other people in the networks without ties of blood or marriage who ended up serving family and parental roles.”
Harris signals this phenomenon not just because people find her endearing but because of other traits like her racial and ethnic heritage, her membership in the oldest Black sorority and her attendance at the historically Black Howard University. When young Black women and girls see picturesque images of her looking regal in the United States Capitol, there is no doubt that they may feel reflected back, affirmed, and perhaps, that their dreams of becoming president are even more attainable.
While these sentiments are important, they do not take full stock of Harris as a candidate with a history and record. From laughing about jailing parents over truancy as district attorney in California, to her denial of gender-affirming surgeries for trans prisoners while California’s attorney general, Harris’s proverbial auntie status runs up against serious questions about how she sees herself representing the larger community of minoritized people. This is what happens when candidates’ descriptive identities are considered indicators of their political ideologies. It’s a dangerous expectation to set and often leaves Black constituents without the legislative responsiveness that they deserve.
Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Youth Protest
Lori Lightfoot is a prime example of how perception of kinship can sometimes contribute to an evasion of accountability. In April 2019, Lightfoot ran against Toni Preckwinkle in a historic race wherein two Black women were competing for the mayoral seat in one of the most historically segregated cities in the country. For many Black Chicagoans, the Preckwinkle vs. Lightfoot contest was awe-inspiring, particularly for older people who remembered Chicago’s years under both the first and second Mayors Daley.
But Lightfoot’s queerness and Blackness have not been sufficient in buoying her amidst her commitments to patriarchal notions of criminal justice and social order. Nor have they offset her reliance on age-old tactics of surveillance and policing that overwhelmingly affect young Black Americans in Chicago. Even now, young Black Americans in Chicago have been staging overt actions in protest of yet another police-perpetrated shooting. These actions have been staged to hold Lightfoot accountable to the very communities who have been organizing and struggling for justice in Chicago for generations.
Holding Harris Accountable
In response to the vice-presidential pick, many people have been focused on the outcomes of the 2020 presidential election, asking repeatedly if young Black Americans will turn out to vote for a Biden-Harris ticket. And, while I believe the answer to that question is, “Yes, reluctantly,” the inquiry which I remain unsure about is whether or not a Vice President Kamala Harris will be accountable to the communities who have been demanding accountability from political leaders on the left for decades.
Melissa Harris-Perry writes about fictive kinship in her 2011 book, Sister Citizen. In a talk on the book, she discussed how Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both performed kinship with Blackness. She also encouraged that fictive kinship “be meaningfully used as a demand for real engagement with the most economically and politically salient gains for the community.” Essentially, we cannot allow Harris to simply rely on the role of “cool aunt” as a veneer for a moderate political career that does little to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, sexism and transphobia. Harris should be pressured to use her connections to minoritized folx to enact lasting social change in the United States.
Black, Brown, queer, trans, disabled, poor, undocumented and under-insured Americans require political leadership that not only looks like them but also keenly understands and advocates on behalf of the policies that sustain their lives.