Kamala Harris — A Biracial Woman of Multiple Ethnicities
What Hyphenated Identity Should Be Attributed to Her — Jamaican, Asian, Indian, or simply Black?
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee introduced his Vice Presidential pick Sen. Kamala Harris as a historic choice whose background reflected the diversifying character of the country. “This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities,” Mr. Biden said. “But today just maybe they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way: as the stuff of president and vice presidents.” News outlets characterized Sen. Harris’ heritage as a person of color, the first Black woman, and the first person of South Asian descent on a Presidential ticket and referred to her biracial identity as Jamaican-American and Indian-American.
Sen. Harris is the daughter of immigrants. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan came from India, and her father, Donald Harris came from Jamaica to the United States and in Kamala Harris’ own words, “in search of a world-class education.” They received their Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought them together. Kamala and her sister were raised by their mother after the parents divorced. Harris writes in her biography, The Truths We Hold, “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters.” The sisters grew up in Berkeley and her mother took them to a Black church even though she was raised in Chennai, India as a Brahmin, the highest caste or varna in Hinduism. Her mother was probably aware of the Jim Crow era “one-drop rule” according to which her girls, because of the African blood from their Jamaican father, would only be considered Black in the United States. Harris chose to attend Howard University, a historically black college, and became a member of the oldest sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Her identity has always been Black.
How much of Kamala Harris’ Indian ancestry matter?
Maya Harris, Kamala’s sister in a tweet on August 11, 2020, says, “You can’t know who @KamalaHarris is without knowing who our mother was.” In the accompanying video, Kamala Harris talks about her mother Shyamala Gopalan, “My mother was a proud woman. She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent, she was a woman who many times people would overlook or not take her seriously, all because of her accent and assumed things about her intelligence. Every time my mother proved them wrong….because of who my mother was and what she believed that she had the ability to dream what was possible and worked to make it possible.” Shyamala Goplan bore the hidden scars of discrimination during her career as a breast cancer researcher and Harris has said, “She was passed over for promotions.”
Kamala Harris’ story is also my family’s story
My family can relate to the story of Kamala Harris and her parents. We came from India to the United States in the 1980s for the same reasons that Kamala’s parents did, to seek higher education. We got advanced degrees. We too were overlooked for that promotion because of our brown skin and our accents or just because of simple prejudice. Yet we persevered and made it possible for the next generation to achieve what they desired. Kamala’s story is the story of many immigrants like us who came to the shores of this country in search of opportunities.
The older immigrants like my wife and I, our children, and other next-generation Indian-Americans felt an immense joy when Joe Biden made the announcement of Sen. Harris as his running mate. My daughter actually cried when she heard the news. Preet Bharara, son of Indian immigrants and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in his podcast Stay Tuned with Preet expressed similar sentiments. We had these questions always at the back of our mind, was it wise to immigrate to this country, and should we have stayed once we received our degrees? Then we felt proud and even relieved when our children did well. In 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidature for the Republican Party’s nomination for President, saying that he will build a wall on the Mexico-America border (which Mexico will pay for) to keep out all the bad people. During the campaign, he voiced hatred against people of color and Muslims. Once in office, he imposed travel restrictions on people from Muslim countries and detained children in detention camps at the border. Hate crimes picked up and after a woman was killed by a White Supremacist in Charlottesville, the President said, “there were very fine people on both sides.” On the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has enacted severe restrictions on legal immigration including suspension of pending green card petitions and H-1B visas. We began to doubt whether our green cards and naturalization papers would even be honored. Then a woman born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father whose name is Kamala Devi was tapped for the vice presidency. And if the Biden-Harris ticket wins next November, perhaps there is hope.
Aziz Haniffa, the executive editor of India Abroad, who interviewed Kamala Harris in 2009, mentions two people who influenced Harris most. They were her mother Shyamala and her maternal grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, a senior civil servant who served as an emissary of India in Zambia. Kamala Harris recounts her walks on the beaches of Chennai with her grandfather and his friends. They would talk about politics, corruption in the government, and social justice. Those conversations had such a strong influence on her in terms of learning to be responsible, to be honest, and to have integrity.
What is in a name?
Kamala in Sanskrit means lotus, the flower that grows in water. It is also another name of the Hindu deity Lakshmi, known as the goddess of wealth and purity. With its roots latched in mud, the lotus plant submerges every night into the water and re-blooms the next morning, sparklingly clean. In Indian culture, this process associates the flower with rebirth and spiritual enlightenment. This symbolism of the daily process of life, death, and reemergence is what makes Kamala a popular Indian name and probably the reason why Shyamala Gopalan named her daughter Kamala Devi.
Reaction from the Jamaican and other West Indian Diaspora
The news of the selection of a Jamaican-American woman as the running mate of Joe Biden generated widespread excitement in South Florida where 2.5 million people with roots in the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti live. President Trump’s hardline immigration policies have alienated these immigrant communities and could be a deciding factor in carrying Florida for the Biden-Harris ticket.
Kamala Harris has been a prosecutor before she became a Senator. She was elected District Attorney of San Francisco and later she became the Attorney General for the state of California. Her slogan during her Presidential campaign was “Kamala Harris for the People.” She delivered her ebullient remarks with a charming smile on the day she was introduced as the VP pick, but her tone was more prosecutorial. She has a biography that will resonate with many immigrant and African-American families. I wish on Wednesday evening when she delivers her acceptance speech, she would make it more personable with anecdotes from her life as a black child of immigrants.
Anne-Marie Slaughter described Kamala Harris thus on the CNN program Fareed Zakaria GPS this Sunday, “She is the future of America. She is Indian-American, she is African or Jamaican-American, she has a white husband, and she has Jewish stepchildren. She is an All American.” It is very hard to pin a specific hyphenated identity on Kamala Devi Harris.