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Op-Ed: Kamala Harris’ South Asian Identity Matters now More Than Ever

kamala harris
4 min read

By Devina Khanna and Angeli Patel

As soon as Kamala Harris’ nomination broke at 4:28PM EST on Tuesday, social media feeds were flooded with commentary by friends, celebrities, and public figures. Many lauded with excitement over the possibility of having the FIRST Black/South Asian American vice president. Posts celebrating the first “Black woman” nominee were also followed by comments like “Hey! She’s Indian, too” and “Diwali is about to be LIT at the White House.” 

There was also the occasional, “Does she even identify as Indian?” or “I never see her talk about her South Asian side.” These comments sum up how many in the South Asian community feel about Harris’s nomination: Proud but also conflicted. 

From a purely political standpoint, during her time campaigning as a presidential nominee, Harris’s policy stances were already concerning given her tough-on-crime reputation as a prosecutor in California. But adding to this complication is the less-covered issue of her conflicted identity.

The conflict can be masked by the fact that simply having a woman of color in the White House as a symbol is enough. Who cares if she doesn’t identify as South Asian— at least there’s one of us up there! She is certainly a far cry from a Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley — who were so desperate to separate from their South Asian heritage that they actually changed their names. At least we’re not dealing with a “Kelly Harris.” 

But underneath this desperate cry for optimism is the disappointment of watching Harris ignore her South Asian heritage. Harris was born to Donald Harris, a Jamaican immigrant, and Shyamala Gopalan, an immigrant born in Chennai, India. Except for the fun cooking video with Mindy Kaling, it seemed like Harris rarely acknowledged her background when describing her family and upbringing. Many children of South Asian immigrants have struggled with understanding her hesitation to own her background because heritage is such a big part of growing up as first-generation Americans. Whether it is as benign as “Where are you from?” or as disturbing as “Go back to your country!”, South Asian Americans are made well aware of their cultural identity. Many wonder if Harris can relate to this. But, hold on, we know it is more complicated than that.

Harris is more vocal about her Black identity. She speaks often about how her mother raised her to be aware of her race. In her biography, she writes,

“My mother understood very well 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 Black women.” 

Identity is truly intersectional. Harris’s experience as a Black woman in America has likely shaped how she identifies. Unfortunately, it has been compounded by the fact that she may not have been accepted in the South Asian community as a half-Black woman. It is understandable for someone of mixed ethnicity to feel conflicted or be told that they are not “[insert identity] enough.”

Yet, Harris’s lack of acknowledgement of her Indian heritage is disappointing because, whether she wants to or not, she is a public figure representing South Asian womxn. Part of the responsibility of being “the first” is being able to navigate the complexities of her identity, especially when so many young girls look to her for inspiration. By not acknowledging that side of her background, South Asian womxn are missing out on the much-needed representation in Harris.

No one is asking her to pick. It’s a critical time in our country’s history where race and identity are at the nexus of what American politics will look like moving forward. It is only then natural to expect Harris to open up and share the full breadth of her experience — the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Here is what we are asking for: vulnerability. Harris has a deeper story to tell. She must share her experiences that form her identity if she identifies with it at all. The risk of not sharing this part of her weighs more now than ever because representation is everything. 


Harris’s ability to navigate these complexities will be indicative in part of her strength as a leader. Though in some ways, those very complexities may be what makes her most relatable to South Asian Americans. People are capable of holding multiple truths and experiences at once. We can expect Kamala Harris to own her full story while also celebrating her nomination as a clear victory for womxn of color.


The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at [email protected]. This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.

13 Comments

  • Avatar
    MB
    This is annoying AF. Indians, especially those not from the Caribbean, don't accept Blackness. Now they want to claim Kamala.
  • Avatar
    MB
    Also, her Indian mother raised her to be a Black woman (not a womxn) while also keeping her connected to her Indian side. Just knock it off.
  • Avatar
    I'm guessing society decided for Kamala what she was when she was a girl in Oakland. It is a legacy of American racism that "we" still call anyone with one drop of African blood (that you can sort of see) “black.” I don't think Kamala is any more ashamed of being 1/2 Indian than Obama is of being 1/2 white. Anyway, I don't blame either one for their choice, if they had a choice.
  • […] [Read Related: Op-Ed: Kamala Harris’ South Asian Identity Matters now More Than Ever] […]
  • Avatar
    AS
    Thank you for posting this! I can understand where you are coming from but I would respectfully disagree ? Yes she is half black and half Indian, but she was raised by an Indian mother who understood that the world saw her children as black. My guess is that it wasn’t the Indian community that helped her mom, but rather the black community that welcomed Kamala and her family—hence her foremost identity as a black woman. (I don’t know for sure of course) Also many of my friends who are mixed often either don’t feel tied to either half of their identity OR they have a dominant one that they either chose for themselves or people just naturally identify them as “more of” which they start drifting to—both are of course influenced by who they hang out with and who accepts them. Honestly being mixed is an identity all of it’s own. (It’s kinda of similar but not exactly to how we as Indian Americans don’t feel completely Indian or completely American—we relate most to other’s who share the same dual identity.) Also we don’t know how the Indian community even reacted to her when she was a child. We can ask if she relates to our experience as south Asians, but can we relate to hers? Childhood affects so much and so many in the Indian community are anti-black and often discriminatory toward mixed families of any sort. To now reclaim her because she is someone of power, and expect her to be loud and proud of being half Indian feels unfair. First and foremost she is a person and a person with good ideas and that’s the focus. She is also a woman, an attorney, a change maker, and she IS of minority background and that’s what’s going to make this difference right now. Plus I think it’s her right to identify with what she feels most strongly about. If she later decides to embrace her Indian side more, I’m all for Aunty Kamala, but it’s not an expectation of mine. Regardless I’m proud of her and will cheer her on! Anyway this is a long response and not intended to start a fight. Just sharing an alternative take to Kamala’s VP announcement as part of the curry community ?
  • Avatar
    Anonymous
    Kamala Devi and MEENA Lakshmi went to the Hindu temple and in 2014 when she got married she put a garland around her husband’s neck which is a Hindu tradition.
  • Avatar
    MB
    Right on AS. As an Caribbean Indian person, I find it rich that folks are clammoring for her to claim her Indianness more than she is (which she does claim mightily). Indians directly from India have a hard time claiming those of us who left caste and traditions behind, blending with other cultures, and god forbid--toast and roast our brown skin in the sun and marry black people.
  • Avatar
    Anonymous
    This is article is too personal. This says more about the authors than Kamala. She's running for VP, focus on her political stances. Ultimately, if you (authors) need someone to act a certain way to meet your requirements for a role model, then be your own role model.
  • Avatar
    Mela
    She actually does talk openly about her South Asian identity on the “Asian Enough” podcast.
  • […] [Read Related: Op-Ed: Kamala Harris’ South Asian Identity Matters now More Than Ever] […]
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  • […] Read Related: [Op-Ed: Kamala Harris’ South Asian Identity Matters now More Than Ever] […]

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