Senator Kamala Harris was selected as the running mate for presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden on Aug. 11, after months of speculation between potential nominees.
Following the announcement, the Daily Lobo met virtually with a number of local Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community members to talk about Harris’ cultural heritage and the connections her Indian ethnicity creates within and across the local AAPI community.
Harris was born to Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris on Oct. 20, 1964 in Oakland, California. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and Jamaica respectively in the early 1960s, a decade defined by the civil rights movement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Harris’ mother raised her two daughters with a “sense of pride” in regard to their Black heritage, but “never to the exclusion of always also being very proud and active in terms of our Indian culture as well,” Harris said in the Times' podcast “Asian Enough.”
Now, with Harris shouldered in the presidential race amongst a lineup of white men, some voters are looking to her candidacy as a symbolic step toward fair representation and diversity in a government which has systematically oppressed and discriminated against the AAPI community.
Every person the Daily Lobo interviewed confirmed that Harris’ identity as an Indian American woman was historic and long awaited.
“I love the ticket because she is a woman, and I have been waiting for a woman on the ticket,” Naina Ballachanda, a certified public accountant, moderate Republican and practicing Hindu, said.
For Sarita Nair, the first female chief administrative officer of the City of Albuquerque — who has seen an “incredible expansion” of Indian American representation in her lifetime — Harris’ placement on the ticket evidences a significant step towards “recognizing our humanity and that (Indian Americans) are a part of this country and should be represented at the highest levels of government.”
Following the coronavirus’ spread from China to the United States, the nation has seen an increase in xenophobic and racist attacks against Asian Americans. Earlier this year, the restaurant India Palace in Santa Fe, a hub for the Asian community, was subject to a hate crime as racist vandals laid waste to the cornerstone establishment. In addition, in March at the University of New Mexico, Chinese student Shuyuan Ye was subject to a racist prank which targeted his status as an international student from China.
Of course, while one elected official of color won’t singlehandedly erase xenophobia in the U.S., Harris' election would evidence the nation’s progression towards diversity, according to Ballanchanda.
“She is one step (closer to) what’s coming ... I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh, and you know — in his own way — he would talk about the ‘browning of America,’ and I think that is so true. It’s a reality, and one that cannot be ignored,” Ballachanda said.
Some have questioned Harris’ ethnic makeup on social media, interrogating whether or not she is Black or Indian.
According to Sahana Ummadi, a member of the South Asian board for UNM’s newly established Asian Pacific American Culture Center, Americans have a reductionist view of identity, as is the case with Harris.
“I think (for) a lot of people, once you say you’re ‘American’ all the other things that define you aren’t relevant,” Ummadi said.
According to Ummadi, Harris’ ethnicity has come under scrutiny because she disrupted the white status quo in politics.
“I think (Harris’ ethnicity) is more focused on because usually politics are dominated by the ‘white-male-powerhouse’ thing,” Ummadi said. “So a woman, and also a woman of color, (possibly being) in that high of a position gives hope to a lot of people who feel like they haven’t been as represented in the past.”
According to Sonja Larson, a Black and Pacific Islander woman who is affiliated with Young Women United and the New Mexico Asian Family Center, these “xenophobic” and “anti-Black” interrogative questions were meant to actively discount Harris’ credibility as a politician. Furthermore, there have also been aims to divide her biraciality, namely with the erasure of her Indian heritage over her Black heritage.
“It’s a battle of trying to find the right medium, and then people are always going to come at you for not embracing one side enough or choosing to embrace one side more than the other, and that can lead to a whole bunch of other identity issues,” Larson said.
But as history can attest, the fight for racial and social equity in the United States has been a joint struggle by communities of color. Indeed, Harris’ parents met as students in solidarity with the civil rights movement, which led to the creation of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act — an overturning of an isolationist quota that cascaded into the exponentiation of the immigrant population in America.
Though everyone the Daily Lobo interviewed expressed pride in having an Indian American woman on the Democratic presidential ticket, that didn’t mean that they all identified with her political positions.
“It’s nice to see a woman of color who could potentially be the vice president of the United States, but then it’s also thinking of ‘where do my viewpoints and her viewpoints match up and where we disagree and what’s more important to me,’” Larson said.
Gabriel Biadora is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen