Kamala’s Complicated Relationship With the South Asian Community
Some are proud. Some are not. Here’s how identity politics play out.
The day after Kamala Harris was named Joe Biden’s pick as his running mate in the 2020 election, Ankit Jain of Washington, D.C., awoke to an email from his South Asian American family members titled, “Fwd: Kamala Harris — Indian Heritage.” A video of Harris making dosas with Mindy Kaling has gone viral in family WhatsApp threads and so has a photo of Harris and her sister Maya clad in saris with their maternal relatives.
South Asian Americans I know have started speculating about what Diwali and Holi in the White House would look like as well as what desi clothing Harris could wear to her inauguration. Some have started calling Harris “Kamala Akka,” meaning sister in Tamil, and have wondered if the amount of effort people have suddenly devoted to learning the pronunciation of Harris’s name bodes well for White America finally understanding how to pronounce ours. The most dogged have started searching for any relatives or family members who live in Besant Nagar, Harris’ grandparents’ home neighborhood in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, to find a closer personal connection to the vice presidential nominee.
Outlets from the New York Times to the Washington Post have been quick to call this moment a victory for Indian Americans. But for many of us, given her prosecutorial record and proposed policies, it doesn’t feel like a victory at all.
“My boyfriend is Black and I’m Indian, so our children [might] look like Kamala Harris,” says journalist Jaya Sundaresh. “A part of me was like, ‘that rules,’ but at the same time, I don’t really think that representation in politics matters. Representation in art, sure? But I don’t care as much what identities you hold if you support institutions that oppress us. We are not casting the next Disney movie here.”
“It is important to really talk beyond her being Indian and actually talk about what Kamala being the descendant of Brahmins means for South Asian America.”
“[Harris] represents me, but I don’t want to be represented by anything she does,” adds Mahi Senthilkumar, a student at the Emory University School of Law who, like Sundaresh and Harris, is half-Tamil American.
Sundaresh and Senthilkumar are highlighting a key failing of many political discussions today, that analysts assume the sum total of a candidate’s marginalized identities is sufficient in proving their commitment to fighting for those marginalized populations. In other words, these declarations of victory value descriptive over substantive representation, overemphasizing the importance of a candidate who looks like us and undervaluing whether her policies champion not only us, but those we are in solidarity with.
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As Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University explains in Teen Vogue, “descriptive representation is the extent to which an elected representative shares identity markers like skin tone, racial identity, ethnicity, religion, and other traits with their constituents.” They add that purely descriptive representation, “doesn’t take into account the nuanced and complex ways that marginalized groups make electoral decisions.”
Aisha Ahmad, a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford explains in the context of Harris’ nomination, “I don’t need to ‘see someone like me’ in the Oval Office if all they do is wreak havoc on the developing world, bomb Brown children, protect the wealth of the 1%, and ransack the working class. Do you support Medicare for All? Do you support the Green New Deal? Are you anti-war? Is your career one that represents a fight for America’s working class or one that represents the 1%?”
Activists who have worked to hold Harris accountable over the past few years, many of them Black and Brown women, have noted that Harris blocked gender confirmation surgery for incarcerated women in California prisons and championed legislation that had disastrous impacts on the lives of sex workers.
As district attorney (DA), Harris supported a policy requiring law enforcement officers to hand over undocumented minors to ICE and used her prosecutorial discretion to pursue over 1,900 misdemeanor and felony convictions for low-level marijuana offenses. Her office’s decision to not disclose misconduct by law enforcement officers put hundreds of defendants at risk. Later, the attorney general’s (AG) office under Harris’ leadership justified blocking programs aimed at reducing prison overcrowding in California by arguing that the expansion would jeopardize a large source of free labor for the state. As AG, Harris also repeatedly refused to investigate fatal police shootings and opposed legislation that required the attorney general’s office to investigate fatal police shootings as well as legislation that would require the Department of Justice to look into these shootings. In this, she is no different than most White people who hold similar positions.
But perhaps one of Harris’ most publicly critiqued policies was championing a bill in the California State Legislature that would penalize mothers with incarceration and steep fines if their children missed school, legislation that ended up hurting mothers of children with chronic illness, among others. Sundaresh highlights this last policy as one in which Harris was able to instrumentalize her Indian heritage to justify a policy with a deeply negative impact on other vulnerable populations. “The fact that she couched her justification of her truancy laws in rhetoric that said she learned the value of education in her immigrant family and used her immigrant background to justify oppressive policies, that offended me to my core,” she says.
Sharmin Hossain, the political director of Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights startup, explains that this use of broad terms like “immigrant background” and “South Asian American” to justify repressive policies is no accident, especially when taking into account Harris’ identity as a Brahmin, the highest caste in the South Asian hierarchy.
“Upper-caste feminists like Kamala have often been roadblocks to progressive issues that impact poor South Asians and South Asians who are not benefiting from caste privilege,” says Hossain. “It is important to really talk beyond her being Indian and actually talk about what Kamala being the descendant of Brahmins means for South Asian America.”
For example, as a reckoning with the rampant caste discrimination in California’s Silicon Valley sweeps Harris’ home state, the senator has remained conspicuously silent. Many activists have urged Harris to make a statement, as one of the most powerful South Asian Americans in the country. Others have wondered why it took so long for the issue of caste-based discrimination in the United States to be heard in court, especially when a South Asian American served as the state’s attorney general for six years.
“A discussion of representation without an analysis of power often throws the most marginalized people under the bus and aids and abets the elite in our community,” Hossain explains. “Kamala’s positionality as somebody who’s Brahmin has allowed her to be caste-blind. I can only imagine the levels of casteist abuse across the country that have gone unchecked because of Brahmin leadership like Kamala who do not see these issues as their own.”
Then there are the international issues.
“If Kamala’s selection is a win for anything, it is a win for shining a bit of a light on the fact that our communities are non-monolithic, they’re very broad, there are a lot of different ways to be South Asian.”
“A lot of my fear also comes from seeing the other Indian American politicians, other than [U.S. Representative] Pramila Jayapal, toe the line for Hindutva,” adds Akila Ally, a student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. “[Many] Muslim South Asians feel that fear, not knowing how Harris’s alliances lie.”
Ally is referring to the Hindu nationalism that has rapidly escalated in South Asia under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. Just a few years ago, Harris congratulated the Prime Minister and welcomed him to the United States for a visit. This visit and Harris’ welcome were notable because the prime minister was actually banned from the United States for several years prior due to his role in the 2002 Muslim genocide in Gujrat.
“Kamala’s 2017 tweet welcoming Modi was a very stark moment for us in understanding that she might be somebody who is in favor of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) ruling government in India, which is so frightening because we know the human rights abuses that are happening under the BJP government in India right now,” says Hossain. “The ruling party of India is setting up the largest detention camps for the world for Muslims, they are actively denaturalizing Dalits, Adivasi, and Muslim communities under programs like the National Registry of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). She invokes India when it is convenient.”
So when Harris started talking idlis and dosas in the days before her struggling presidential campaign was suspended, then explained how she was raised, “to know and be proud of [her] Indian heritage,” during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), many of us wondered whose benefit those statements were for.
“For people whose material needs are already taken care of, often one of their deep desires is to see themselves reflected at the pinnacles of power,” explains writer and organizer Sarah Thankam Mathews. “But for the South Asians being deported right now, or people who are working class, or who are most vulnerable to the carceral state, those are not people who will look at a rich Black and Indian auntie and see themselves reflected in the same way.”
“If Kamala’s selection is a win for anything, it is a win for shining a bit of a light on the fact that our communities are non-monolithic, they’re very broad, there are a lot of different ways to be South Asian,” she adds.
Indeed, when I speak with Sundar Kuppuswamy, president of the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America, he tells me this: “We’re very proud of Kamala. Our support will definitely be with her as an Indian American and a Tamil American.”
For some Tamil Americans like Kuppuswamy, it’s worth noting that Harris doesn’t just have Indian roots, she has Tamil roots. This is partly due to the fact that when most non-South Asians think of India, traditions and traits from North India most likely spring to mind: butter chicken, salwar kameez, and Hindi films. South Indian Tamil culture is often not seen as the face of Indian culture abroad.
“I never thought I’d see an Indian woman anywhere close to the White House, and a South Indian one at that,” author Amitha Knight says.
But more than in the new awareness of the intricacies of South Indian culture, the national attention paid to the diversity of South Asian experience is especially evident in the recent coverage of Harris’ identity as a biracial Black and Indian woman.
“It is really interesting that many of the South Asian Americans who are celebrating her now did not have that level of enthusiasm around her as a presidential candidate. Part of that is definitely because she was presented most often as the Black woman candidate on the primary debate stage whereas Andrew Yang was presented as the Asian American candidate,” adds writer and editor Nisha Chittal.
And as South Asian Americans speculate about the reasons Harris herself has chosen to not be as vocal about her South Asian ancestry as her Jamaican heritage in the past, advocates have seized the opportunity to highlight the anti-Black racism endemic in the global South Asian community.
Sundaresh explains, “I’m in all these Blindian Facebook groups and on there and on the TikTok Blindian tag, you see a lot of interracial kids who are from Black and Indian relationships who don’t feel accepted by their Indian communities. And a part of me is very excited — a very small part of me that I’m very ashamed of — is excited to see a Blindian making it.”
“But ethnicity isn’t the answer to the political questions that plague us,” she adds. “There are people who say, ‘she wouldn’t have made it anywhere as a Black and Brown woman unless she was tough on crime.’ Well, then maybe she shouldn’t have made it anywhere. If the club is immoral, then don’t join the club.”
“Representation often runs skin-deep and electing folks into an imperialist carceral system won’t lead to transformative freedoms,” adds Ally.
Nowhere is this truer than at this week’s DNC, where the limits of descriptive representation are being laid bare. When I listen to Harris’ convention speech, I struggle to reconcile her declaration that, “none of us are free until all of us are free,” with her work to defend life sentencing laws, push to uphold the convictions of many who may have been wrongful convicted, the decision to appeal a crucial death penalty case which ruled the punishment unconstitutional, and role in raising cash bail costs in San Francisco. I hear Harris explain that she has, “fought for survivors of sexual assault,” and think of how she incarcerated trans women in men’s prisons, putting them at increased risk of sexual violence and harm behind bars.
Harris’ nomination only feels like a victory for me if I think those people — trans women, Black and Brown people trapped in the criminal justice system, low-income Americans — don’t really matter or, perhaps, that their lives are the price we’re willing to pay for one person’s demographically representative rise in national politics. It’s not a trade-off that we South Asian American women should be so willing to make.