The Indian Diaspora and the Curious Case of Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential nominee in the United States for 2020.
Individuals who run for public office are almost always thrust into the limelight, with their past, present, and future moves placed under a magnifying glass. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris is no exception to this.
Born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris is the first Black woman and Asian-American woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. Yet to many, the last part was news; while she had largely been identified as a Black woman by the public, her South Asian heritage hardly received significant media attention until recently.
Since Harris’ vice presidential nomination, both the Democratic and Republican parties have attempted to appeal to Indian-Americans by relating to their identity. Naturally, Harris has been at the front of many Democrat-led efforts. She has frequently spoken about the influence her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan—who held progressive views on democracy and women’s rights—had on shaping her belief systems. During her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, she recollected her visits to Chennai, strolling around Elliot’s Beach and reaffirming her love for idlis. She even used the word chithi—Tamil for mother’s younger sister—as she described what family meant to her.
And perhaps most famously, during her presidential campaign last year, she made dosas with Mindy Kaling. The segment was a wildly popular hit, as Harris additionally reminisced how her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, would store spices in the all-too-familiar Taster’s Choice coffee jars.
While Asian-Americans only make up a little over 5 percent of eligible voters in the U.S., Indian-Americans usually maintain one of the highest turnout rates among the other sub-categories. Historically speaking, Democrats have traditionally maintained a loyal voter base in Indian-Americans. In the 2016 presidential elections, 77 percent voted for Hillary Clinton and collectively raised more than $10 million for her campaign. This year, roughly 68 percent favor Joe Biden. However, an increasing number have leaned Republican in recent presidential and midterm elections, which brings up an key point: that many members of the community evaluate a candidate based on his or her position on issues of strategic importance to India.
As such, the Indian diaspora’s initial euphoria surrounding Harris’ nomination has given way to skepticism over her ethnic allegiance to India. Questions seemingly abound over whether Harris will be good for U.S.-India relations or not. Several in the community are quick to bring up her criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 that removed Kashmir’s special autonomous status. Others point out Harris decrying Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s decision to boycott a meeting with U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal over the latter’s criticism of the aforementioned Article.
In response, Harris’ immediate and extended family in India are confident that the vice president-hopeful will work to build on Trump’s India policy and continue to bring both countries towards each other.
Nevertheless, due to a current Trump administration that has definitively strengthened the U.S.-India relationship, a number of independent and right-leaning Indian-Americans say that Harris’ identity isn’t enough for them to sway them into voting blue. For them, ideology trumps identity, as they place more value on issues such as taxes, healthcare, education, and the US-India relationship before deciding to vote one way or potentially change party lines. And with Indian-American politician Nikki Haley as one of the most prominent voices of the Republican party, it might be a particularly steep uphill battle for Harris to garner the number of votes from the diaspora as she may have initially envisioned.
Frankly put, it will be virtually impossible for Harris to get an unequivocal hurrah from Indian-Americans, given how polarized many of them are vis-à-vis politics. However, this election year is quite possibly the first one in which Indian-Americans have been politically coddled and empowered more than ever before. With Indian-American representation in government also on the rise, seeing a woman of Indian descent on a presidential ticket for the first time is no doubt inspirational for millions across the country. The community is clearly enjoying its newly-garnered attention, and prospects point to much more in 2024, an election year that, according to preliminary speculation, could feature Harris versus Haley.
It is important to note that the pushback towards Harris is not exclusive to Indian-Americans. Some Black voters have debated whether she is “Black enough,” despite the fact that she chose to attend Howard University, widely regarded as one of the country’s most prestigious historically Black colleges. Harris has fondly recollected her time at Howard, where she majored in political science and economics, and also joined a Black sorority.
As the daughter of two immigrants, Harris certainly symbolizes the multi-ethnic and multicultural society that has been gradually gaining prominence in America and its political landscape. In fact, the nation’s multiracial population has grown substantially over the last several decades thanks to interracial marriages, with the share of multiracial babies having risen from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And according to the Census Bureau, the multiracial population in America will triple by 2060.
Yet Harris’ story and trajectory also highlight the challenges multiracial people continue to face in the U.S. over defining their racial identity. These Americans are often challenged on how they identify, something that has become a familiar situation for them. It happened with then-Senator Barack Obama – biracial himself – as well, who faced questions during his initial presidential campaign about whether he was “Black enough.”
Could it be possible that Americans may not know how to treat multiracial people? It is a key question that does not necessarily possess a negative connotation, but one that has often been brushed under the carpet. Though people may wish to categorize others by race and place them all into one box, it is not so simple as this. Harris herself has said on many occasions that when she initially entered politics, she struggled to define herself for others despite facing external pressure to label herself.
Truth is, being biracial can mean owning both ‘sides’ of one’s race. It is not a battle of percentages, and no one should be mandated to pick a particular side over another. Biracialism is an identity in and of itself, thus separating the whole from the sum of its parts. And to many, biracial or not, Harris symbolizes seeing themselves and their lived experiences in a candidate that may soon occupy the second-highest position in the U.S. government.
Perhaps it is time that Americans start having more discussions on multiracialism and what it means to an individual. Harris’ case is certainly a nuanced and complex one for even her to navigate. Hence, having candid conversations with one another can only help further a greater collective understanding of people who represent more than one identity, going forward.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is a recent graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is currently based in Singapore.)