Madam Vice President: South Asian Erasure and the Debate on Kamala Harris’ Identity

Photo from AP/Chris Carlson
Photo from AP/Chris Carlson

My personal opinions on Harris’ policy, viewpoints, and previous work as Attorney General are independent of my opinions on the discussion of her identity. I feel the argument I make in this article is something that should fall completely separate from party affiliations. All politicians should be held accountable for their actions, but this article is not about that-this is about representation and the, in my view, unfair discourse on Kamala Harris’ ethnicity. Please keep that in mind as you read.

It is undeniable that there is Asian American erasure in politics-especially among the South Asian community. Think of the South Asian American politicians you know. A few names come to mind: Kamala Harris, Nikki Haley, maybe Bobby Jindal-the now vice president-elect and two former state governors. The only South Asian politicians people know are the controversial ones or the monumental ones. Kamala Harris has made history as the first female, Black, and South Asian person as vice president-elect. Nikki Haley remains in a constant stew of controversy because of her outspoken support of the current president and his administration. Bobby Jindal, better recognized by older generations, is known for being the U.S.’ first South Asian governor and for his work in Congress (and maybe his failed presidential bid).

So I ask then: If there are only about 3 people that come to mind, what happened to everyone else? While there is an imbalanced proportion of South Asian representation in politics, it’s a lot more than just three people representing us. Why don’t people know about Ravinder Bhalla, Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera, Ro Khanna, or the many more like them? These are people who have made history nationally and/or in their states. I’ve only heard of these people because of my Indian identity and interest in American politics. It’s safe to say then, that for someone who isn’t South Asian, this community’s recognition in politics is bare minimum and a product of media erasure.

Earlier this month, the historic Biden-Harris campaign won the 2020 election, unseating current president Donald Trump. Kamala Devi Harris is a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. Though she was raised by her Indian mother, she still thoroughly experienced both of her cultures: “All my friends were Black and we got together and cooked Indian food and painted henna on our hands, and I never felt uncomfortable with my cultural background.”

However, many South Asians feel unrepresented by Harris because of how much-or rather, how little-she references her South Asian heritage. They feel as though she claims her culture only to gain South Asian votes and thus, media erasure of her South Asian identity is due to her failure to ‘bring it up’ as often. To them, she feels like representation on paper, but not in person.

I can sympathize with them-it’s always felt strange seeing Harris described as the first Black woman to do such and such, when she’s usually also the first South Asian woman to do so as well. It’s a small sting, reading between the lines, seeing the quiet erasure of her South Asian identity. Similarly, when Harris was elected to her Senate seat in 2016, she was praised for being the second Black woman elected to the Senate. There was also a lesser mentioned, and arguably more notable milestone that she also reached: She was the first South Asian American person elected to the Senate.

Photo from Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Identity is complex. There are so many factors in the way mixed children identify themselves, and it is unreasonable to expect them to reference their identities equally. At the same time, the anger from the South Asian community is justified, to an extent. We barely get representation on a large scale, and when we do get it, we crave to see it amplified. This is what people are expecting from Kamala Harris, and it’s too much.

Kamala Harris does not close out her South Asian identity. She embraces it. She’s not hesitant to mention her Tamil upbringing on the nation’s biggest stages: “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my ,” she said in her acceptance speech for Democratic nomination for Vice President. In 2015, she told the Los Angeles Times , “My Indian mother knew she was raising two Black daughters, but that’s not to the exclusion of who I am in terms of my Indian heritage.”

What I’m asking now is this: If Harris does not ignore her South Asian identity, how are we, as outsiders, in any place to question how she brings it up in comparison to her Black identity? The constant debate on who she is just feels like nitpicking now. As South Asians, I feel it’s more important for us to celebrate what she has been able to achieve. So long as she has not wholly abandoned her South Asian identity, I pay no mind to how much or little she references her Indian identity in comparison to her Black identity. She represents me, she represents us, and she is representation I am proud to have.

Aarushi Gupta (15) is a sophomore in the IB program at Richard Montgomery High School. She loves music, writing, and talking to her friends. She’s also very passionate about politics. You can find her on Instagram at @aarushigupt.a or email her at aarushigupta300@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://yellohmoose.org.

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