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Seated at a table in the ornate, ceremonial vice president’s office, Rep. Ami Bera described to Kamala Harris how he felt when he saw the ubiquitous photo that accompanied the coverage of her selection as vice president, of her as a child standing next to her mother clad in a traditional Indian sari.
“When I see those pictures with her mom, I see my story in there,” Bera (D-Calif.), the longest-serving Indian American member of Congress, said after the May 11 meeting. “I see my story in her story.”
That private moment was a milestone in U.S. history: An Asian American vice president sitting down with an ascendant group of lawmakers of similar backgrounds. But the rarity of it also had another effect, spotlighting just how infrequently Harris has publicly spoken about that specific part of her biography.
Harris carried many firsts with her into the vice presidency. The daughter of an Indian mother and a Black Jamaican father, she is the first woman, Black person, Asian American, Indian American and biracial woman to serve as vice president. Those firsts have come with their unique set of pressures, primarily for her to embrace her history-making role. And after nearly four months in office, Harris faces criticism that she hasn’t struck the right balance, that she’s focused more often on being the United States’ first Black vice president than the first Asian American one.
Harris understands the critique. After all, she has faced it before. On Wednesday, she will deliver the keynote address at the first AAPI Unity Summit to talk about how Asian Americans can harness their growing influence in politics.
But with the likelihood that she may one day run for president again, she has some more balancing to do. Since she was sworn in, she has chatted with civil rights activist-turned-TV anchor, the Rev. Al Sharpton, about her African American heroes and participated in numerous interviews with news outlets geared toward Black audiences from Chicago to San Francisco. She made an unannounced stop at the old Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where four Black college students refused to give up their seats in protest six decades ago. And she has spent much of her brief tenure urging hesitant African Americans to get the Covid vaccine.
Politicians and activists of Asian descent have cheered Harris’ ascent. But they want her to speak out more about her Indian heritage, embracing it as she does her Black roots, and advocate for policy issues important to Asian Americans, including legal immigration, Covid-19 disparities and discrimination and hate crimes. They say the need has never been more pronounced, as the discrimination Asians have long faced continues to grow, marked tragically by the March shooting of six women of Asian descent at three Atlanta-area spas.
“Now she has a much more visible position in which to do things,” said Rep. Judy Chu, (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “It’s a tremendous tool and a tremendous way of connecting with people and making them feel included so I would just encourage more of that for her because she is such a symbol for so many people in this country that are Asian American Pacific Islander.”
“It’s the complexity of the American identity”
Kamala Devi Harris, 56, was born in a place where she was more likely to be identified as Black; grew up surrounded by Black neighbors and friends; and succeeded in politics with the backing of the Black political structure. Harris identifies as both a Black American and South Asian American but Americans often see in her what they want to see.
She’s been accused of not being Black enough, criticized for not touting her Asian heritage and faulted for choosing to say she’s Asian over Indian. Some Americans are unaware of her biracial background while others forget she has any Asian heritage at all.
Harris and her office declined to comment. This story was based on interviews with 20 people, including friends, aides, lawmakers, activists and scholars, some of whom asked to speak without using their names so as to talk candidly about the vice president.
“What Kamala Harris represents is bigger than politics. It’s the complexity of the American identity,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network of women of color. “She represents the future of the population of the country and a new way of thinking of the country. Not everyone is able to think that way and are really holding onto old ways of boxing people in based on identity.”
Harris — whose first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit and middle name is that of a Hindu goddess — was born in an era when many Asian immigrants were still banned from the United States. The Johnson-Reed Act, which effectively barred Asians, including those of Indian origin, from immigrating to the U.S., would not be fully repealed until 1965. Indians comprised just 0.3 percent of Oakland in 1960.
She regularly talks about the influence of her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher who came to the United States at age 19 to attend graduate school and died in 2009. But she says little about her father, an economist and professor who divorced her mother when she was 7, and has since retired from teaching at Stanford University. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Gopalan raised her daughters to be Black women, perhaps with little choice. America boasts millions of biracial residents but society often forces them to choose one race over another or does it for them, especially if they have any Black roots. In the 1960s in Oakland, Calif., when nearly one-in-four residents was Black, Gopalan knew her daughters would be treated as Black girls, not Asian American ones.
“Growing up in America, our mothers had to make sure that we were aware that we were Black women because that’s how we were going to be seen, that’s how we were going to be treated,” said Carole Porter, a Harris childhood friend who has a white mother and Black father. “We needed to know that and be aware of that and feel that.”
In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, Harris said that her mother “raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.” Gopalan cooked Indian food for her daughters, gave them Indian jewelry to wear and took them to India every other year to visit their grandparents in the southern city now called Chennai.
But Harris wrote in her memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, that she listened to African American musicians as a child, worshipped at an African American church, attended civil rights marches with her mother and was bused with other Black children to school in a wealthier white neighborhood.
Harris and her family moved to Canada when Harris was in middle school. She decided to come back to the United States to attend Howard University, a historically Black university where she was part of a Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, before returning to California for law school and to begin a career as a prosecutor. She was elected attorney general of California and then U.S. senator from California, where was a member of both the Black and Asian Pacific American Caucus congressional caucuses. During her wedding in 2014, Harris placed a garland of flowers around the neck of groom Doug Emhoff — a tradition at Indian weddings.
Throughout her life, Harris has identified with one minority group whose history in America is defined by oppression, while also being part of a smaller minority whose lineage in America is less defined. Today, there are more than 20 million Asian Americans in the country — less than half the number of Black Americans. With a population of 4 million, Indian Americans are the second-largest group of Asian Americans, though Indian Americans — or more broadly those from the Indian subcontinent — say they often face questions about whether they are counted as Asian American.
“She doesn’t fall neatly even into what we think in terms about biraciality,” said Andra Gillespie, professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Emory University. “The United States is still in many ways defined by a Black-white dichotomy with Americans much familiar and comfortable with Americans like Barack Obama, who had one Black parent and one white parent, through the one-drop rule that defined anyone with any Black ancestry as Black.”
That dichotomy seems particularly pronounced in politics, where there are simply more points of tension, more places of symbolism, and more tortured history to demonstrate one’s Black identity than there are for Indian Americans. There is, in other words, no equivalent to the old Woolworth’s lunch counter for Harris to visit.
“She’s a Black woman who has a parent of Indian descent,” Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, said of Harris. “One could be biologically Indian but may not have had a large experience with that culture.”
A juggling act
Questions about Harris’ identity followed her throughout her political rise. But they became all-consuming during her run for the presidency. During the 2020 primary campaign, she publicly embraced her Indian background in a way some Asian Americans said had been lacking earlier in her career, as Donald Trump aggressively pursued Indian American votes.
Harris credited her maternal grandfather, who pushed for India’s liberation, for helping shape her. She expressed her love for vegetable biryani, an Indian rice dish, while talking to Indian American comedian Hasan Minhaj on his show "Patriot Act.” She cooked the popular South Indian dish masala dosas with Indian American actress Mindy Kaling.
“What we’re going to cook today is an Indian recipe because you are Indian and I don’t know that everyone knows that,” Kaling said to Harris in a video that was shared extensively on Facebook.
But Minhaj hinted at what some Indian Americans think of Harris when he joked on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that Harris “manages to do what every Indian dude wishes they can do: Be Black.”
Indeed, while she was open in discussing her Indian roots during the Democratic primary, her candidacy was often distilled through the prism of the history she’d accomplish as a Black woman. Harris attacked Biden for his past opposition to school busing, noting that she had benefited from the program.
“I know you’re not a racist,” she said to Biden during a June 2019 debate. But she then went on to accuse him of giving segregationist senators a pass on integrating schools. “That little girl was me,” she said.
Biden and his team thought the attack crossed a line but, ultimately, it didn’t change anything. Harris dropped out before the voting started and Biden won the nomination largely with the help of African American voters.
Back in the Senate, Harris continued to make a name for herself by opposing Trump, including his rhetoric targeting Asian Americans as the spread of Covid-19 shuttered the country. She introduced a resolution condemning his use of “Wuhan virus” to blame China for the pandemic and accused him of “race-baiting” in an op-ed in the Asian Journal.
Those who know her or have worked for her saw it as the natural balancing act of an individual who, through the course of her life, was asked to balance her multiple identities.
“I’ve heard her address her South Asian heritage and talk about her aunties, but I also understand someone who is half-Black, what that means in America, how the rest of America looks at a person who’s got Black heritage. That’s how it is in America,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a Japanese American, who serves as chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and has spoken to Harris about veteran discrimination. “I think we need to give everyone who is interracial, intersectional the space to talk about themselves in the way they see themselves.”
When Biden tapped Harris to be his running mate in August 2020, the news was treated differently at home and abroad.
In India, her selection was cheered with celebrations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated her with a nod to her history-making choice in a tweet that was liked more than 100,000 times.
In the U.S., the occasion was marked more as a milestone for Black women. Even her younger sister, Maya Harris, focused on it. “That day when a little girl from Oaktown became the first black woman to be a major-party vice-presidential nominee…”
That tweet garnered almost 140,000 likes. But the responses to it underscored the sensitivities which Harris has had to juggle; how some Indian Americans yearn to be more than just Black. Suneet Mahandru, a New York journalist whose parents immigrated to the United States from India, was the first to respond to Maya Harris’ post.
“I cannot wait to see how she engages the Indian-American community. Especially Sikhs,” Mahandru tweeted back. “I mean I’d thought you’d include she’s Indian. The first Indian-American in the Senate. Somebody who my sister and I could connect with.”
Asked last week why she felt the need to respond, Mahandru, 36, responded: “We’re always neglected and I just think she can do a lot more. Has she reached out? No.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the first Indian American woman to serve in the House, has heard the complaints that Harris identifies more as a Black woman. But she said in some way it's understandable because the vice president got involved in politics at a time when Blacks had much more of a political structure than Indian Americans.
“For as old as our community is in the history of the United States, it is also relatively new in democratic participation,” said Jayapal, who has bonded with Harris over their shared history — Jayapal’s great aunt mentored Harris’ aunt, a fellow OB-GYN in India.
After Biden picked a running mate, his campaign tried to appeal to Indian Americans and more broadly Asian Americans. They held “chai and chat” events, formed a South Asians for Biden group, and promoted the song remix from the popular Bollywood movie "Lagaan" about an Indian village fighting British rule. But it was Harris’ small personal touches that drew the most attention, such as when she used the Tamil word “chittis” to describe her mother’s younger sisters at her convention speech.
The efforts came as Trump worked aggressively to make inroads with Indian Americans in ways Republican presidential candidates never had before — recruiting volunteers at Indian grocery stores, conducting campaign events in five different Indian languages, and trying to appeal to Indian American voters through targeted digital ads. Trump himself appeared alongside Modi at two massive rallies: in 2019 in Houston at the largest event ever in the U.S. for a foreign leader and in 2020 in Ahmedabad, India at the world’s largest cricket stadium.
He tried to appeal to an older generation of Indian Americans who legally emigrated to the United States for work or school, still followed Indian politics, and supported the populist Modi. Biden and Harris were critical of Trump’s policies that impacted Indian Americans, including restricting visas and limiting trade, and unveiled their own agenda for Indian Americans, which included measures aimed at curbing bigotry and addressing security needs at houses of worship.
It didn’t always go smoothly. Harris received some criticism in India media and WhatsApp chats for meddling in Indian affairs after she voiced concern about India revoking the special status of Kashmir, a northern territory long the subject of a dispute between India and Pakistan. It showed the perils that come with more engagement and that simply being Indian-American doesn't automatically give one a pass when talking about thorny geopolitical issues.
Still, Harris is credited with helping persuade Indian Americans and, more broadly Asian Americans, to overwhelmingly vote for Biden over Trump, with younger voters more supportive. AAPI voters saw the largest increase of voting among groups by race in 2020, and 67 percent backed Biden, according to data firm Catalist.
“It increased the enthusian factor,” said M.R. Rangaswami, a software executive from San Francisco who founded the group Indiaspora to get Indian Americans involved in politics. “Her being on the ticket actually made people go vote.”
“She does see us because she is us”
Even as she was considered a net positive for the Democratc presidential ticket, Harris has said little about Indian American issues in the weeks and then months since the inauguration.
She joined her former colleagues at a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus event before her swearing in and spoke at a virtual inaugural ball geared toward Asian Americans to celebrate. But the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus had to wait until May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, for Harris to meet with them without Biden, almost three months after she met with the Congressional Black Caucus.
The administration has hired more than 50 Indian Americans to leadership positions — from the president’s chief speechwriter to the vice president’s press secretary — but Harris was quiet when Asian Americans were frustrated that Biden failed to name an Asian American to the 15-member statutory Cabinet. Asian Americans have served in presidential Cabinets, including Donald Trump’s, since 2000. (Biden nominated two Asian Americans to Cabinet-level positions: Katherine Tai to be U.S. trade representative and Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. But Tanden, the daughter of Indian immigrants, withdrew amid opposition from senators of both parties.)
“She lacks Indianness,” Sampat Shivangi, an Indian American doctor from Mississippi who has raised money for Republican presidential candidates, said of Harris. “I don’t know how much we can claim her because she claims to be African American rather than Indian American. I think she is keeping distance from Indian Americans. She should start identifying who she is.”
While Harris has remained relatively quiet about U.S.-India policies, her niece, Meena Harris, shows no such restraint. The latter waded into India’s politics by supporting farmers who have pushed back against Modi's agricultural reforms and suggested that the prime minister was one of the world’s “facist dictators.” In India, pro-government protesters burned photographs of Meena Harris, among others, on the streets of New Delhi.
Many Asian Americans say it’s too soon to judge Harris’ commitment to the Asian American community because it will likely take months to know what her portfolio of policy issues will be, especially since the early focus has been on the pandemic and economic recovery.
“Her presence will transform the way our community looks at itself,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of IMPACT, an Indian-American advocacy group. “There is a robust, well-recognized established political history in the U.S. that no one understands and they are still learning what it means to be South Asian and what is our history. She will be able to bridge many communities.”
Still, the list of what Asians Americans want Harris to do is long and both symbolic and substantive — visit India, tout and celebrate Indian holidays at the vice president’s home, hire more Asian Americans in the White House and take on issues, including legal immigration, hate crimes and discrimination and Covid disparities, among others. Bera urged her last week to do more globally, including in hard hit India, to fight Covid-19.
“There will be key moments where her biography is going to be important in swaying or shaping public opinion, helping to persuade a few senators to shift their votes,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who directs the Asian American Voters Survey. “I think we will see that.”
So far, Harris has focused on foreign policy, Central American migration and vaccine hesitancy but less on Asian American specific issues, though she did highlight hate crimes even before the Atlanta-area shootings.
In March, after the spa shootings, she was urged to comfort the community, talk about the discrimination Asians have long faced and lead the Biden administration’s efforts to try to curb Asian-fueled harassment and violence. When she traveled to Georgia with Biden after the shootings, she spoke about laws discriminating against Chinese immigrants in the 1860s, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and attacks against Muslim Americans after 9/11. It was one of the few moments that Harris singled out Asian Americans publicly.
And in a closed-door 90-minute meeting with Biden and a small group of Asian American legislators and activists at Emory University in Georgia, Harris spoke about her Indian roots and her experiences growing up with her mom. Like much of her career trying to juggle race, it was at once moving, emotional, historic — but not quite enough.
Michelle Au, a state senator who attended the meeting, said she left wishing there had been more time to hear from Harris about how discrimination had affected her as an Asian American woman.
“You know she does see us because she is us,” she said.