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What Kamala Harris’ unique American story means to Black and South Asian Americans

Sen. Kamala Harris is the first Black woman and first Asian American vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

When news broke Tuesday that Joe Biden had selected Sen. Kamala Harris to be the Democratic vice presidential nominee, political consultant Neal Carter saw a range of emotions across the moderate, liberal and left-wing circles he traverses.

The first Black woman on a presidential ticket? A historic selection? A symbolic gesture to the big tent of the Democratic Party? “Many were positive, but also many were critical,” said Carter, who runs Nu View Consulting, a Black-owned political firm. The critical views he saw were from left-wing people who didn’t like her prosecutorial record in the Bay Area and as California’s attorney general, an issue that dogged Harris during the presidential primary.

Though, Carter added, “There are a lot of people who are obviously, particularly Black women, including my wife, who are excited by the idea of a Black woman being nominated.”

Many Americans of color are having the same kinds of complex conversations about Harris. Her upbringing as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants has evoked both joy and, in some left-wing quarters, skepticism about the senator who has tried to strike a course between the the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party.

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“Kamala Harris — a woman of Jamaican American and Indian American descent — as vice president is nothing short of historic,” Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, which promotes women of color for office, said in a statement. “This is one step in a much larger fight for representation towards the multiracial democracy women of color have dreamed of, fought for and bled for, for generations.”

Black actress Kerry Washington, star of the TV show “Scandal,” said she was “overwhelmed by this historic moment.”

“My heart is soaring for all the kids out there who see themselves in her and will dream bigger because of this,” Washington tweeted.

Some liberal Black women feel more guarded about the tough road ahead, facing the challenge of pushing a Democratic woman of color to be more progressive while defending her from inevitable racist and sexist attacks.

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“Women of color, particularly progressives, might feel torn. Perhaps even closeted excitement,” Derecka Purnell wrote in a widely shared op-ed in the Guardian newspaper about the conflicting emotions felt by some liberal Black women about Harris’ selection.

“Then, there’s the fatigue. Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity.”

The complexity is shared in the Indian American community. After the news broke, Mythili Sampathkumar got a message from her parents embracing the landmark moment of the first woman of color to reach that pedestal in U.S. politics.

“Dad and I are extremely proud to have a South Asian with Tamilian background represented in 2020 Presidential ticket,” wrote her mother, a Tamil woman who immigrated from India to the U.S. in the early 1980s. “This is such a historic moment and we are glad that US has woken up finally joining rest of the world to recognize women.”

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But for Indian Americans who grew up in the U.S., “it doesn’t hit the same way for us,” said Sampathkumar, a freelance journalist.

“Some of the conversations are like, ‘I’m happy to see her, but I wish she would do XYZ,’ or ‘I wish she would be more vocal about being Indian American and Black.”

There is no one right way to write or talk about Harris’ identity, though there are lots of simplistic or crude ways that are in wide circulation. In mainstream media coverage, Harris’ Black heritage is typically given primacy over her South Indian roots, a common practice in a country that invented the “one drop” rule centuries ago to identify and segregate people with African heritage.

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Harris is not descended from enslaved Africans trafficked to U.S. soil by Europeans, but from a father who was an economist from Jamaica, a nation with its own distinct history of colonialism and enslavement. America’s anti-Blackness was something she was born into, like when she was bused to another school district as a child as part of a desegregation plan to fight systemic racism against Black Americans.

Anti-Blackness is also something Harris will probably experience on the campaign trail, much as Barack Obama did when political opponents questioned his birthright citizenship to paint him as a deviant outsider and a radical.

“Anything to the immediate left of Donald Trump is ‘socialism, Marxism, radical leftist,’ and all those phrases were labels that were [immediately] added to Kamala Harris despite folks in that left space who were saying ‘she’s not one of ours,’” said Carter, referring to conservatives’ first salvos against Harris.

Nor is Harris simply Asian American, or simply South Asian American, or simply Indian American, but very specifically the daughter of a Tamil breast-cancer researcher whose family belonged to the generally privileged Brahmin social class in post-independence India, a nation with its own complex social history.

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With P.V. Gopalan, an upright civil servant and doting patriarch, Kamala Harris forged one of the defining relationships of her life.

Those nuances might not be meaningful or even perceptible at all to many moderate white voters who are poised to heave President Trump from the White House. But they are the stuff of the phone calls and text messages that many Americans of color have been sharing over the last 24 hours to unpack, analyze, celebrate and critique the significance of Harris’ elevation.

“Commercial media has never really been ready to talk about race in this context, and I can’t even imagine really talking about the biracial aspect of it,” said Tauhid Chappell, executive board member of the Philadelphia Assn. of Black Journalists, who is Black and Indian American.

“There’s just layers upon layers of nuance that the industry is not ready for,” Chappell said. “There’s going to be so many mistakes and critiques and a lot of articles that do not really specifically address a lot of the nuance from Indian Tamil communities and Black Jamaican communities.”

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The nuances will also be driven, in part, by the way Harris tells her own story as she introduces herself to the U.S. electorate.

“Today, she said she’s a Black woman, even though she talked about her mother,” said Sampathkumar. “She can be whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She can be both, and we can’t forget one or the other.... We should respect that, and I think part of that is changing the narrative of what it means to be biracial in this country. It’s not just half-white and ‘other.’ It can be Indian and Black.”


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