From The Asian Reporter, V30, #10 (September 7,
2020), page 8.
"One of us": South Asians celebrate Harris as
By Sophia Tareen
The Associated Press
CHICAGO — Two words summed up Tamani Jayasinghe’s exuberance
for the first Indian-American and Black woman to run for vice
president: "Kamala Aunty."
The title of respect that goes beyond family in Asian circles
immediately came to mind when Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris
as his running mate last month. So the 27-year-old with Sri
Lankan roots tweeted it as a wink to others who understood the
significance of the term.
"The fact that she is both Black and brown is what makes this
so exciting. The Asian-American experience is one that is
complicated and nuanced and robust," said Jayasinghe, who works
in financial communications in New York. "I feel connected to
Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian
mother, often focuses on her identity as a Black woman. At times
during her political career, as she ran for California attorney
general and senator, some didn’t realize she was of Indian
descent. In her first remarks as Biden’s running mate in
mid-August, she spoke of her mother’s roots but described
herself as the "first Black woman" to be nominated for the vice
presidency on a major party ticket.
Still, the possibility she would be the U.S. vice president,
which within 24 hours triggered sexist and racist commentary,
created instantaneous glee among South Asians worldwide and put
the spotlight on her as the first person of Asian descent on a
major U.S. party presidential ticket.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic
group of eligible voters. More than 11 million Asian Americans
will be able to vote in November, according to a May report by
the Pew Research Center.
The choice — Biden and Harris made their debut last month —
inspired social-media musings of celebrating the Hindu festival
Diwali at the White House and drawing room talks about the U.S.
senator’s mother’s journey from Chennai to California. Indian
government officials of all parties noted the choice as
historic, while actress Mindy Kaling — she once made masala dosa
with Harris — deemed it "thrilling." A top headline in The
Times of India, one of the world’s most widely read
English-language newspapers, read, "‘A daughter of Chennai,
Kamala blooms in U.S."
"She is one of us," said Aleyamma Keny, a retired nurse in
The 74-year-old woman, who immigrated from southern India to
the U.S. in the 1970s, said Harris joining the ticket felt like
a family member had accomplished something. Like many others,
Keny saw her own immigration story in the candidate’s mother.
Harris has called her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, her
biggest influence and frequently invoked stories about the
cancer researcher and civil-rights activist who died in 2009.
Gopalan first came to America in 1958. She attended the
University of California, Berkeley, where she met and married
Jamaican immigrant Donald Harris and had Kamala and her sister
before the couple divorced.
Gopalan took the sisters to India to visit relatives and gave
both, Kamala Devi Harris and Maya Lakshmi Harris, names rooted
in Indian culture. (Kamala means lotus, Devi means goddess.
Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth.)
Harris’ mother came to the U.S. at a time when Indians were
scarce and raised her biracial daughters with the understanding
that the larger American society would see them as Black. She
took them to civil-rights protests, and wanted them to become
"confident, proud Black women," Harris wrote in her 2019 book,
The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.
A graduate of Howard University, Harris has made clear that
she is both confident and proud of her Black identity. In a
March 2019 radio interview, she answered a question about her
identity by saying: "I’m Black, and I’m proud of being Black. I
was born Black. I will die Black, and I’m not going to make
excuses for anybody because they don’t understand."
She did take steps during her presidential campaign, before
she dropped out in December, to talk about her Indian heritage.
Without much fanfare, she released a video via social media
featuring photos of her Indian grandfather and talked of her
visits as a child to see him.
In her initial speech, Harris noted her parents’ heritages
but ended with saying Biden is the only person "who’s served
alongside the first Black president and has chosen the first
Black woman as his running mate."
President Donald Trump struggled to define her candidacy,
repeatedly calling her "nasty." She’s already been the subject
of the false notion that she’s ineligible to run because her
parents were not born in America. Harris was born in California.
Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, the same year
three other Indian Americans won their first U.S. House terms,
including Pramila Jayapal of Washington. The first
Indian-American congresswoman, she said Asians also celebrated
Harris as a Black woman.
"It isn’t just that we want her to be an Asian-American
sister for us. She really is representative, this biracial piece
is representative of the experiences that so many immigrant
communities have had, learning from the leadership of Black
communities," she said. "So we want her to claim all of us and
we will all claim her."
Madhuri Patel, who immigrated from Gujrat, India, at the age
of six and grew up in predominantly white Iowa, said Harris’
multi-layered identity would make her a more effective leader.
She hoped Harris could unify the country.
"For me, it’s always been really important that you have
someone who understands the experience of being marginalized
within our communities," said the 45-year-old Chicago attorney.
Zafar Bokhari, a Chicago State University professor who
immigrated from Pakistan in the 1980s, said Harris was a role
model for his children.
Despite skepticism about her foreign policy if elected, he
said seeing a woman from the Indian subcontinent as a possible
vice president was inspiring.
"This is quite an achievement and I really admire the way she
has presented herself," he said. "She has earned this position
and I respect that."
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York and
Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.