Presidential Candidate, Senator Kamala Harris speaks with supporters at an event at The Wiltern Theater. – Los Angeles, California / United States – September 23, 2019 (Shutterstock)
By Sakshi Venkatraman, NBC News
Sen. Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, has long been someone people have tried to categorize.
Since she’s joined Joe Biden on the Democratic presidential ticket, some South Asians on social media have started referring to Harris as “Kamala Auntie.” But the familial and celebratory reaction has also sparked a serious discussion.
Critics point out that before South Asian Americans can “claim” Harris as one of their own, the community should confront its own anti-Blackness.
Discussion among South Asians surrounding Harris’ Black and Indian background have always been messy, a fact that’s only been heightened since Biden picked her as his running mate. Some have criticized her for appearing pander to South Asians only at certain times, others are upset at the media that her Indian roots have been left out, while many now feel compelled to defend her against President Donald Trump’s racist attacks.
Although there was an outpouring of celebration and praise for Harris from young South Asians after Biden’s announcement, some drew attention to difficult truths her nomination would force the community to confront.
“I wonder if Kamala Harris as VP will have any impact on the ‘No Blacks’ marriage rule Indian immigrants set for their children,” comedian Hari Kondabolu tweeted.
I wonder if Kamala Harris as VP will have any impact on the “No Blacks” marriage rule Indian immigrants set for their children.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) August 11, 2020
Anti-blackness can be uncomfortably familiar for many South Asians. Whether it’s years of implicit biases or overt beliefs that have long gone unchecked in families and communities, critics say it needs to be dismantled before there can be performative displays of celebration for the Indian-half of a Black woman.
“We are aware of the slurs for Blackness, for Black people, the skin-whitening creams, the warnings given to ‘desi’ children to not bring Black partners home,” said Dr. Dhanashree Thorat, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University who studies race, feminism, and systemic oppression. “So if we are willing to accept her as a Black woman, are we willing to confront all those things?”
Before the Indian community rallies behind Harris, it needs to understand how being Black affects someone’s life in the United States and around the world, Thorat said. Because, though South Asians might be hungry for representation, celebrating only her Indian heritage is an erasure that feeds anti-Blackness and the model minority myth.
For immigrants to the U.S. after 1965, the model minority myth has been perpetuated by white people in power, praising Asian Americans as inherently hardworking and willing to assimilate to dismiss the oppression of Black and Latino Americans, experts have pointed out.
“Why are our communities rallying behind her now?” she said. “I can’t help but feel that her identity as a Black woman has suddenly become more palatable precisely because she is within reach of this high office. And that’s exactly how model minority discourse works.”
Harris’ relationship with South Asian America
Harris has not necessarily been quiet about her South Asian identity — she has spoken before about the inspiration she drew from her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who immigrated to the U.S. at 19 from south India, and her progressive grandfather, whom she visited in India from time to time. But the senator was never particularly vocal about her complex identity until her 2020 presidential bid.
She has said that she would prefer to define herself as “American.”
Even during her campaign, she was one of two Asian American candidates in the running — but the U.S. public’s image of an “Asian” doesn’t look like Harris.
“Sharing the stage with her was Andrew Yang, an East Asian, who just automatically became in people’s minds the Asian American candidate, even though he was not the only one,” said Nitish Pahwa, an Indian American writer who analyzed Harris’ relationship with South Asian Americans.
But as soon as she was announced as Biden’s running mate, Indians were quick to celebrate that there might be “someone in the White House who knows their mirch and masala.”
Kamala Harris is a Black and Desi woman. So, let me also enjoy the fact we’re going to have someone who knows her mirch and masala in the White House.
— Wajahat “Wears a Mask Because of a Pandemic” Ali (@WajahatAli) August 11, 2020
But celebrating Harris is not as easy as calling her “auntie.”
According to Pawha, asking Harris to emphasize her Indian roots over her Black ones is to ignore her lived experiences in the U.S. The senator wrote in her 2019 book “The Truths We Hold” that though her mother was an Indian woman, she “understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters.”
“The Indian experience in America is nowhere as deeply tied to America’s history and institutions as the Black experience in America,” Pahwa said.
It is also necessary to consider others who are both Asian and Black and have experienced intense discrimination in Asian circles, Thorat said.
Asian as a category excludes and pretends it doesn’t. I wanted to learn Mandarin while pursuing my PhD and a professor of Asian descent told me there would be no point in me trying. I would never learn it well enough.
— T A O 道 (@taoleighgoffe) August 12, 2020
“It’s almost like people are talking about her as two separate women,” Thorat said. “You have Kamala who’s a Black woman and Kamala who’s a South Asian. And she’s not two separate people. Why are we just celebrating her South Asian descent? Why can’t we celebrate her as a Black woman?”
And while representation is important, Thorat encourages voters to look beyond that. Considering Harris’ policy history — her tough-on-crime stance and support for policing of minor violations — is important to determine how her leadership will impact marginalized communities.
“We have to ask, what are these people going to commit to as part of their position in this political office?” she said. “Are they committing to racial justice, to enacting change in immigration, and other kinds of policies that are progressive?”
The effect of casteism and colonialism
Though recent Black Lives Matter protests have been the catalyst for conversations in Asian American households, anti-Blackness on the subcontinent is not a new concept. It dates back centuries, experts say. And its two driving forces are casteism and colonialism.
These two structures, which though legally abolished still influence Indian culture, perpetuating colorism by rewarding people who have lighter skin.
“All of our communities have been fed anti-Blackness. In South Asia, it’s anti-darkness,” psychotherapist Yuki Yamazaki told NBC Asian America in June. Yamazaki is half-south Indian, half-Japanese and is studying Asian Americans and colorism at Fordham University.
The instinct for South Asians to prove their adjacency to whiteness has reared its head in the U.S. as early as the 1920s, when some Indians fighting to gain entrance argued in court that they should be considered “white” for the purposes of immigration and that their status as “high-caste Hindus” should count, too. This changed after the Immigration Act of 1965, Yamazaki said, but the idealization of whiteness lives on.