Politics

Kamala Harris’ Indian American Identity Is Finally in the Spotlight

As an Indian American speaking only for myself, I will admit to a befuddling crush of emotions.

Kamala Harris speaks into a microphone.
Kamala Harris speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for president at Howard University in D.C. on Jan. 21, 2019. Al Drago/Getty Images

There’s no denying that Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s running mate for the 2020 presidential nomination is historic. She is the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to share a major-party presidential ticket. In the political positions she held in California, Harris often carried the significance of being both the first Black woman and South Asian American woman to have served those roles. In a country that has historically treated Black women horribly, hers is no small feat—even as Harris’ prosecutorial background has led to criticism that she’s played a role in that system. To many progressives of color, including Black women, her rise has evoked complicated feelings.

In a much different way, her relationship with Indian Americans is also complex; even at this late date, some might be surprised to discover that Harris is half-Indian (as has often happened in previous times). Kamala Devi Harris shares her first name with an Indian-beloved flower, a Hindu deity, and a Bihari river. Her middle name literally means goddess in Hindi. She has spoken and written proudly of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, an Indian-born doctor and activist, and of her grandfather, an Indian civil servant and high-ranking diplomat. (In her memoirs Harris has referred to her grandfather as a fighter for Indian independence from British rule, something family members have disputed.) She was raised primarily by Gopalan, who divorced her father, the Jamaica-born economist and activist Donald Harris, when she was a child. As Kamala wrote in her memoir, her mother was her biggest influence; the family often visited India when she was younger, and Gopalan’s family “instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots.” But also, Harris’ mother “understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

When she was running in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Harris was rarely the one reporters referred to as “the Asian American candidate.” (That honor went to Andrew Yang, who persevered until February, while Harris stepped down in December.) She wasn’t even the Hindu candidate onstage—that was Tulsi Gabbard, an American of Samoan descent with family ties to a bizarre, cultish sect. Harris was, thankfully, never privy to the “Indian” stereotypes that have followed me all my life, from the mysticism to the marriage systems to our career paths—even New Ager Marianne Williamson was far closer spiritually to the more astrologically minded Indians I’ve known.

That Harris hasn’t seemed to run on her Indianness historically can make some political sense. Indian Americans are not exactly a major voting bloc: As of 2017, there are over 4 million people of Indian origin in the U.S., making up a little over 1 percent of the population. Nevertheless, Indians have occupied a unique place in America’s politics, being embraced by all sides of the political spectrum as hardworking immigrants who “assimilate” well and epitomize the melting pot, the American dream. As voters we are primarily Democratic, even though until very recently the most prominent Indian American politicians were conservatives—like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley—who downplayed their Indian roots instead of embracing them. There are conservative Indians who vote right for cultural or Islamophobic reasons, and many desis, even liberals, tend to be blind to their own relative privilege. But no matter the breathless reporting, the “Hindus for Trump” coalition has never been as strong as Republicans might have hoped.

All that means that left-leaning Indian Americans during my lifetime have been starved for representation. Which has long made me wonder: Why hasn’t Harris made a bigger deal of her Indian roots? When asked about her identity, she tends to call herself “American” and doesn’t delve too deeply into any specifics regarding her Indianness. She’s married to a white man, Douglas Emhoff (to the woe of traditional Indian aunties who would have preferred she marry a nice desi boy, I’m sure, though she did incorporate some Indian wedding traditions in her nuptials). She has long claimed to be “proud” of who she is when asked about her South Indian and Tamil roots, yet besides the occasional photo, speech, or Mindy Kaling video, Harris’ Indian background doesn’t seem to play too heavily in her political life, to the consternation of Indian voters who have expected more direct outreach and ended up disappointed. In fact, comparatively more Indian American donors gravitated to Gabbard (notably, many of these were people who liked Gabbard’s sympathetic stances toward demagogic Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalism), while other polls showed more aggregate support from such groups for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primary. This is all the more stark considering California also has the largest Indian American population in the country. It’s possible that, now that Harris has become an indisputable political heavyweight, she may discuss this part of her heritage in more depth: I’ve seen firsthand more discussion about her Indian identity from the punditry in the hours following Biden’s announcement than I have since she leaped onto the national scene.

To witness Harris’ rapid rise now feels … odd. On the one hand, this is a big moment hardly imaginable to most Indian Americans not too long ago. It was bizarre to grow up as an Indian immigrant in the 2000s, when the infuriating Islamophobic fervor that followed 9/11 expanded to anyone with brown skin, dark facial hair, and a funny-sounding name. Bobby Jindal joined the House in 2004, and Nikki Haley became South Carolina’s governor in 2010. (And Dinesh D’Souza had been trolling forever.) The Hindu nationalist right was also ascending in India at the time. In the U.S., anti–South Asian hate crimes and attacks increased during the war on terror and lately have not abated. But now, there are actually more desi politicians on the national stage to legitimately admire. So I felt a small bit of gratification yesterday, even though I am a far bigger fan of Pramila Jayapal than I am of Harris.

But to be clear, that’s not because of the way Harris treats her Indian roots. One can be hard on her for many things, but I don’t think the way she’s perceived as treating her heritage is one of them. Identity is not a competition, but it’s not inaccurate to say the Indian experience is nowhere near as central to American politics and to American life and history as is the Black experience. Much of the racist treatment Harris has faced throughout her life is due to her Blackness, including but not limited to the continued accusations of her not being “Black enough.” It’s her experience as a Black woman that has most prominently shaped her political career. There’s no way to overstate the value and import of that.

I can hear my erstwhile therapist, who spent hours helping me unpack my own struggles with identity, asking how Harris’ new anointment makes me feel. I cannot speak for any Indian or Asian American besides myself; I will admit to a befuddling crush of emotions. On the one hand, this is undeniably a landmark moment for the South Asian diaspora. No matter how you spin it, it is progress, a bold assertion of the United States’ multiculturalism as countermajoritarian institutions attempt to entrench white power. But I also can’t cheer that loudly. I do not vote based on my identity. Harris was not my first choice either for president or veep. I was bothered by many things about her, including her punitive prosecutorial record and her waffling on issues like health care. Yet there are also some things I’ve admittedly respected, including her mic-drop debate moments, her (mostly) progressive congressional voting record, and her professed love for Bay Area rapper Too Short. (Sen. Harris, if you’re reading this, what is your favorite album? I have Short Dog’s in the House on vinyl.)

Come what may, Indian Americans will see in Harris what they wish to see in her: Her presence on the national soapbox alone has already inspired some Indian American progressives, even as it has repelled others for myriad reasons. Though my personal enthusiasm for her is muted, I do hope more than anything that we have Vice President Kamala Harris come January. But ultimately, if Harris’ candidacy shines a brighter light for left-leaning Indians who want to follow her path, that is what will excite me most about this moment.

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