As an Indo African Caribbean Woman, I See Myself in Kamala Harris
She offers an opportunity for me to share my family’s island ancestry
Some are quick to say they don’t support Kamala Harris, the Democratic VP nominee, for any number of reasons ranging from her heritage to her politics. But I feel differently. I feel pride. Harris’ name on the United States vice-presidential ticket makes me feel seen in a way that doesn’t often happen for many people from the British Caribbean. Like Harris, Nicki Minaj, Tatyana Ali, and hundreds of thousands of others, my identity is mixed with Indian and African ancestry, a caste known to many islanders and some Continental Indians as Dougla.
It’s a word that once was a term of derision used to describe the children of African and Indian parentage. But in recent years the term was reclaimed and some of us use it proudly. For my own lineage, British people brought my mother’s grandparents from India to Jamaica in 1845 to fulfill a labor gap on sugar plantations after the abolition of chattel slavery. More than half a million Indians from British Colonial India were taken to 13 mainland and island nations in the Caribbean from 1838 to 1917 to serve as indentured workers.
Over the last 182 years, there was bound to be some mixing. Estimates suggest more than 2.5 million people in the Caribbean and their descendants in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. are of Indian origin. For many of these people, including myself, the Democratic Party’s decision to support Harris’ run for the vice presidency is the only time we have witnessed a global acknowledgment of our whole selves.
Her historic rise acts as a beacon of hope for people like us and presents a symbolic resource for Indian and African unity.
“Like me, [my children] are Indo African mixes. Dougla,” says Dana Williams, a Trinidadian who now lives in Secaucus, New Jersey. “The idea that someone truly like them has the chance to rise to [one of] the highest office[s] in the land is breathtaking!”
Dougla (also Dogla or Dugla but pronounced dow-gluh) derives from Bhojpuri, the dialect of Hindi spoken by the majority of Indian indentured laborers who worked in what is now known as the Caribbean islands. The original word, doogala, denotes that one is impure and of mixed caste or a half-breed and can also mean “mutt,” “bastard,” and/or “son (or daughter) of a whore.”
The term is no longer an ethnic slur in the Caribbean. It is used neutrally or positively, similar to the way in which some African Americans use the word “Nigga.” However, historically Douglas have been mistreated and ill-regarded by Indian Caribbean people, including from within their own families.
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Case in point: Sheree Welch, who lives in Trinidad, says her Indian father was disowned by his family for marrying a Black woman.
“We are never accepted by Indians,” she says. “I am mixed, I am Dougla but I am Black. What else could I be?”
Though few people are speaking frankly about this caste designation, it is there. It is also perhaps a reason why, for every supporter, there is a detractor for the Harris campaign in the Indian Caribbean diaspora.
“I’d celebrate her no matter what race she was,” says Sangeeta Maragh, an Indian Jamaican living in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, who is proud of Harris and her heritage. “Being Jamaican is important because culturally that is what I identify with.”
For more than six generations, Indo Caribbeans have seldom been regarded as part of the Indian Diaspora but this Dougla woman, Harris, has.
Wesley Gibbings, a free speech advocate and journalist with Trinidadian Indian, Chinese, and Irish African heritage says this of some critics: “The lack of interest may also be rooted in anti-Blackness that comes from the ethno-supremacist behavior of some Indian Caribbeans but if Harris was a Trinidadian mix, because of national pride, just like the Jamaicans we would claim her.”
I am perplexed by the selectively broad acceptance and embrace of Harris as half Indian or half South Asian by the Continental Indian diaspora. For more than six generations, Indo Caribbeans have seldom been regarded as part of the Indian diaspora but this Dougla woman, Harris, has.
This is rather strange considering there are and have been other Douglas that have left indelible marks on U.S. culture yet rarely make headlines for their heritage.
The Trinidad-born Onika Maraj, better known as Nicki Minaj, is one of the most influential female rappers of all time. I’d argue she is the most famous Dougla prior to Harris’ ascension. Jamaican dancehall legend Super Cat, born William Maragh, helped bring his brand of reggae to global audiences in the ’90s making crossover collaborations with Kris Kross, Heavy D, and the Notorious B.I.G. Another Dougla is Tatyana Ali, born to Afro Panamanian and Indo Trinidadian parents in New York. She played Ashley Banks, Will Smith’s younger cousin in the hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Minaj rarely speaks about her Dougla heritage, but did state that her “dad makes the best chicken curry in the world.” Meanwhile, Sue Ann Barratt, PhD, in the book Indo Caribbean Feminist Thought contemplates how Minaj invokes Dougla feminism to create political and intellectual space. She considers that her artistry expressed through her many alter egos represents an extreme case of ethnic fluidity which is characteristic of her Dougla identity.
Ali says she had to create her own standard of beauty: “There are a lot of prejudices in the Caribbean and in Indian communities about hair type and skin color. So, I heard the good, the bad, and the ugly and had to decide that I didn’t believe any of it.”
Jamaica’s Toni-Ann Singh, whose father is Indo Trinidadian and mother is African Jamaican, won the coveted Miss World crown in 2019. Edward K. Archer, professionally known as Special Ed, was born to Jamaican Indian and African parents also in New York. He was the first Dougla rapper in the U.S. and his debut album sold half a million copies in 1989 when he was just 16.
The more pointed Indian diaspora’s acknowledgment of Harris’ heritage might be that she is a politician and not an entertainer. It may also be based on the fact that she is a more direct descendent from India and could use her political power and cultural sensitivities to deal effectively with issues ignored by the Trump administration. This includes the abusive Hindu takeover of the majority Muslim state Kashmir and action on caste prejudice and discrimination which is rife within Indian communities in the U.S. The state of California, for example, is suing the multibillion-dollar tech company Cisco for allegedly discriminating against a lower caste engineer.
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India’s caste system is at least 3,000 years old and prescribes rigid hereditary social classes in alignment with the religious prerequisites of Hinduism. This stratification offers limited social mobility and determines occupation and marriage. Those relegated to the lower castes, despite efforts at reform, still face tremendous marginalization and violence.
Award-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, a lower-caste Indian also known as an “Untouchable” Dalit, says casteism and racism have different histories but operate structurally in the same way. “The difference is that racism is a manmade construct and casteism claims some kind of divine right,” Roy said.
It should be noted that Harris’ high caste Brahmin identity makes her more palatable to higher-caste U.S. Indian-Americans and Continental Indians in a way that Caribbean Indians are not. Harris’ Indian heritage, with an India-born Tamil mother from a high caste and a father who left Jamaica and went to the United States, is not “marred” by the history of indentured servitude in quite the same way as my own. Caribbean Indians are often rejected by Continental, high, and low caste Indians because they and their descendants have been “Creolized” and therefore deemed culturally inferior.
Like my Indo Caribbean cousins in New York, at school in London, I was also called a “Nigger Indian” by Indian kids born to Continental Indian parents. Despite their anti-Creole and anti-Black racism, just like Harris, my cousins and I were still entitled to apply for an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card because we have a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent from India. This grants us the right to live, work, attend school, and own property in India.
This privilege does not make coping with the pain of anti-Black racism, colorism, and casteism within Indian communities and families easier. I am certain that some of the harsh critiques of Harris might also stem from the unresolved caste and color issues of the commenters. I am also sure that Harris, like most Dougla people, has cultivated the skill of learning how to live with the prejudice.
Continental Indians are not the only group that needs to reconcile their anti-Black racism. It is also Caribbean Indians that have had mixed people in their families for almost 200 years that need to make an adjustment too.