Kamala Harris officially accepted her nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on August 19, making her the first black woman and the first Asian-American to be nominated for the role.
Ever since Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, announced Harris as a running mate, there appears to have been a reluctance in the Indian media (mainstream and social) to claim Harris as our own. There is much less chest-thumping jingoism around Harris than one would normally expect when any Indian abroad makes it big. Remember how we gushed over when astronaut Sunita Williams came to India for the first time in 2013 and revealed that she carried samosas to space? We all feel a sense of pride when our ‘desis’ succeed, and become mayors, CEOs and what not.
So why has the nomination of Kamala Harris evoked such mixed emotions?
The Indian mediascape has so far reflected the overall mood of the Indian diaspora (mostly upper caste Hindus) in the US, which feels that Harris doesn’t acknowledge her Indian and Hindu roots enough. The Indian community abroad has also raised objections over her being called the second black woman to be selected for the US senate and not the first woman of Indian origin, as well as over the fact that her identity is billed more as ‘Asian American’, than Indian or Hindu.
A recent article published in The Print went as far as to blame ‘Hinduphopia’ in the US as the reason behind why it’s difficult for Kamala Harris to supposedly fully embrace her roots.
Even though it should only be Harris’s prerogative to decide how she wants to identify herself, the debate around her identity will only intensify as we edge closer to the presidential election in November. By then, many Indian media channels will put every distant cousin/relative of Harris on primetime TV to discuss how many Kanjeevaram saris she has and whether she likes to eat idlis for breakfast.
However, no one will launch an inquiry into the deep-rooted racism and sexism of sections of Indian society at play; sections that feel uneasy while watching Harris proudly call herself a black woman.
Until very recently, women in many Indian communities weren’t allowed to take their father’s or their husband’s last names. In Haryana, where I come from, all the women from my grandparent’s generation were born ‘Kumaris’, and then became ‘Devis’ upon marriage. Even though a woman can now use her family name, it isn’t really considered in many homes that she it ‘forward’.
We still follow the tradition of kanyadaan, where the parents give away their daughter to the groom’s family. The act of kanyadaan is not a mere wedding ritual, but it signifies a major shift in how a woman will be perceived after marriage – her identity is now bound to that of her husband and in-laws.
So I wonder why our sentiments are hurt when Harris calls herself black when it is only natural in the Indian order for fathers or husbands to dictate a woman’s identity? I am not accusing Harris of conforming to the patriarchy, but only trying to bring out the hypocrisy of a nation that till very recently did not give parental property rights to women.
Harris was born to Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris in 1964 in Oakland, California. Harris has often spoken about her mother, Gopalan, who immigrated to the US at the age of 19 in 1958.
Harris credits her mother a great deal for shaping her thoughts and ideology. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Harris wrote in The Truths We Told, her 2019 campaign biography.
It is quite understandable Harris chooses to look up to her mother as the path she charted for herself seems quite unconventional even today, almost 60 years after Gopalan immigrated to a country she had never been to before and ended up marrying fellow student and civil rights activist Donald Harris – who came to the US in 1961 from Jamaica.
Though Gopalan’s privileged upper caste Tamil Brahmin background would have definitely played a role in accessing education and mobility – it is highly unlikely that her decision to marry a black man would have found much acceptance in her extended family. It’s hardly uncommon for upper caste Hindu parents in India to say, “You can marry anyone, but a black person or a Muslim”, to children heading abroad for higher education.
Gopalan then went on to commit a double folly – she divorced her husband when Harris was seven, and decided to raise her daughters by herself. We all know how divorced women are sneered at – especially if they had chosen to marry the man themselves, and are often subjected to pity or outright vilification.
There is a telling scene when it comes to this issue in an episode of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, which revolves around Devi, an Indian-American high school student in California.
Devi, her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala (not Harris) go to a Ganesh puja organised by the Hindu community. Kamala runs into a woman who has been shunned as she married a Muslim man whom she later divorced. The woman advises Kamala to abide by her parent’s wishes as it isn’t worth being ostracised by the community.
In a country where both men and women are subjected to horrific atrocities if they choose to marry outside their religion and caste, it is important to ask how we view Kamala Harris. When we repeatedly ask Kamala Harris to embrace her Indian roots, are we ready to accept her blackness? Can her father, Donald Harris, an economist and Emeritus professor at Stanford University, take a walk in any of our cities without being subjected to racial slurs and abuse?
By asking Harris to prove her Indianness, are we avoiding tackling our own deeply-ingrained racist value system that has no qualms about reducing people to the colour of their skin?
In October 2019, two months after Article 370 was revoked and Jammu and Kashmir was put under an unprecedented lockdown, Harris drew a lot of flak from the Indian government and right-wing media after she said, ‘‘We’ve to remind the Kashmiris that they’re not alone in the world”. She even boycotted the ‘Howdy Modi’ event the same month.
Harris also came out in support of Pramila Jayapal, the Indian-American Congresswoman external affairs minister S. Jaishankar refused to meet at a diplomatic meeting in the US. Jayapal had introduced a bill in the first week of December 2019 in the House of Representatives, urging India to lift the communication clampdown, release political detainees, and “preserve religious freedom for all residents” in J&K.
So what the right-wing ecosystem in our country wants is for Harris to not just keep playing up just how Indian she is, but to also extend her support for any and all steps that the current BJP government takes.
Perhaps, it’s not about Harris’s not acknowledging her Indian roots enough, but more about a lack of space in our society for women like Harris – who are confident in the colour of their skin and won’t be silenced to prove their nationalism.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Reuters