Unless you've been living under a (really, really large) rock, you know that Kamala Harris is the vice president-elect—and has shattered a lot of glass ceilings. Come January, she'll be the first woman and first daughter of immigrants and first woman of color to hold the role of VP. And different people point out different aspects of her multiracial identity; after all, she's Black and Asian and South Asian and Indian American.
So this week on the show, we're talking about what exactly it means for Kamala Harris to be the United States' first Black-South-Asian-multiracial-female-vice-president-elect. We get into a lot of messy territory, like what her political prominence might help illuminate (or obscure) about South Asian political identity, how multiracial people are perceived, and how Blackness intersects with all of those things.
To help us make sense of all of that, we talked to Nitasha Sharma, an associate professor of African American Studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. Here's the extended cut of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Back when Kamala Harris was running for the Democratic nomination, what sorts of things were you noticing in the way that people were talking about her racial identity?
On the one hand, among Black folks on Twitter, there was a response to how Harris has really identified as a Black woman. So I think people were really excited about that possibility. But also, among progressives, it was more about her politics and her policies rather than her identity, although those things happen at once.
On the other hand, among South Asians, people knew that she was Indian. And I think that's what was really critical for a lot of South Asians. But now that she's been out a little longer, Asian Americans as a whole have embraced that part of her. And then finally, of course, the immigrant narrative: A lot of us are the children of immigrants, and I think that speaks to a lot of folks.
So there's a lot of kind of mainstream celebration of Kamala Harris being the first Black and South Asian woman to run for the Democratic VP ticket.
On the other hand, people are saying that it's not really about her background. We know that there are Black people, for instance, who don't have policies that are good for Black people. All skinfolk ain't kinfolk. Even if you are a particular identity, it doesn't mean politically that you're going to pass laws and legislation that is good for that broader community.
You say that among Asian Americans, South Asians were the first to claim Kamala Harris, then Asian Americans more broadly. I'm curious about that process, how fast or slow that happens, and what that says about the politics within the Asian American community.
That's a really great question. So, you know, South Asians sort of came into the umbrella of Asian American more recently. "Asian" in the United States has often been typified as the face of an East Asian person — somebody who might be Japanese or Korean, maybe Vietnamese, Chinese. And this has to do with immigration patterns to the United States, and the U.S.'s global relations with Asia, which initially had been with East Asia. Immigrants who came here were first Chinese, then Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos. South Asians came a little bit after Kamala Harris's mother came from India, and that is from the 1965 Immigration Act.
So on the one hand, when we think about Asian Americans, we think East Asian. On the other hand, a lot of South Asians don't consider themselves to be Asian American. Part of it, especially after 9/11, is because we look different. We're racialized differently. We are considered to be Brown. And people might mix up a person who's from India with someone who is Latino or Mexican. So there's a different racial process to that.
At the same time, Asian American is a political identity. So the folks who are, say, academics in Asian American studies on university campuses can see a ready identification with Kamala Harris as part of the Asian immigrant story. But Kamala Harris is not an "Asian American" to some South Asians and Indian Americans—she's Indian. So I think that there's those various levels, and Kamala can be all of those things. And it really is interesting when we pay attention to who she claims to be.
South Asians seem to have long known that Kamala Harris was Indian—but why might others only know that she's Black?
I always knew she was Indian because she has the same name as my auntie in the village in India. Kamala is an Indian name, and her middle name is Devi— a South Asian middle name. So, right off the bat when you see "Kamala Devi Harris," you know that she is Indian, or her parents had some interest in India, because we know that there are jazz musicians who are African American who name their children with South Asian names.
But in general, it's true that people will look at her and listen to her story about how she identifies and reduce her to being Black. And that is not necessarily a negative thing. That's how she self-identifies as well. She is a Black woman. She was born and raised in Oakland, California, and she grew up in the '60s. She knew people who founded Black studies departments. And she was around the civil rights and Black nationalist movements in the Bay Area. She went to a historically Black university.
But when we think about race in the U.S. or people are talking about racial issues, they're often using "race" as a code word for "Black." And so the primary paradigm that this nation was founded on was a Black and white paradigm. The invisibility of Harris' Indian-ness is an allegory for the racial position of Asians in the United States. We are generally invisible, irrelevant, it seems, to the conversation of race. So when we talk about Kamala Harris' race, people often will only speak about her as a Black woman. And that's the way race operates in the United States.
With all the things that you were hearing about her identity, was there anything that surprised you about that conversation?
I'm not surprised that there's a lot of celebration among many Americans, but also within the Black community and particularly among Black women. We saw the same with Obama, so in the same way, that's not that surprising. What is surprising to me is that people are picking up that she's also South Asian. Right? So that means that people are picking up on her multiracial identity and that she's not like Obama. She's not like what we generally think of as a mixed person and then question their Blackness— as people did with Obama—because she's not white. Her father's Black, from Jamaica, and her mom is South Indian.
And so what is surprising is that people are willing to grapple with the fact that she is not, "just Black." Black is expansive enough to embrace and include all kinds of multiracial people. Most people of African descent in the United States who have been here for generations have European and Indigenous ancestry. But the one-drop rule works in such a way in, you know, as developed from the times of slavery to increase the number of Black people, to increase the number of slaves. It can be a way to define community in a proud way and expansive way—that if you're Black, you're Black.
On the other hand, that really leads to a distrust of people who claim multiracial identity. That's because, like with Obama, most people think claiming "mixed race" as an identity is an anti-Black move or a move away from Blackness, because the assumption is that you're moving toward your white identity or light-skinned privileges. Kamala Harris changes the whole conversation on that.
How do these dynamics play out on a national political stage, and what's different between Barack Obama and Kamala Harris?
Harris and Obama are both very aware of racial dynamics as politicians and their desires to appeal to a broad base. So the way that they handle their racial identity and their affiliations will be very self-aware, especially on the main stage when they're running for political office.
Obama was raised by his white mom in Honolulu and by his grandparents who are white. His father was in Kenya and passed away. And so he would speak about his white family and sometimes would bring them on stage. And that really had some audiences saying, OK, he's trying to do this strategically and he's trying to affiliate with white people and appeal to white audiences. And that is often, by some, read as a move away from Blackness. There's not the ability among Americans, with regard to race, to understand that one can be both, and—not either, or.
In the vice presidential debate, Kamala Harris talked about her mom as an immigrant, but she didn't talk about her racial background. She didn't give us the immigrant story with the specifics that she does in other interviews. And I think that that's interesting as well. Her mom has passed away, and so she doesn't have her on stage with her. She seems to be estranged from her father, so he doesn't appear on stage with her. So it has to do with how she looks, how she presents herself and the narratives that she picks from her background and her experiences. And that's how it plays out on stage as audiences are watching. We think we understand what a Black woman is and what that signifies—but she has to choose to call to the surface her South Asian-ness.
It makes me giggle a little bit that with Kamala Harris, Indians are so proud of her and Indians are also, generally speaking, so anti-Black. I love my Indian community, but we have issues. The main voice for South Asians in America are North Indians like my father. And the person that they get to celebrate in this moment is a woman — the daughter of a very independent South Indian woman who came before the mainstream Immigration Act of '65 and chose to marry a Black man.
Does the fact that Indians and South Asians identify with her and claim her surprise you? I mean, can you see an alternative where her being Black is just too much of an obstacle for her to be this esteemed figure for South Asians?
Oh, for sure. It tickles me, because she's so respectable, and she's doing all the things, right? She's not crazy progressive. She is highly educated. She is well-dressed. She's married to a nice white man. She's done all the things that Desis approve of. She's not a doctor or engineer, but she did go through law school. So she fits the stereotype and the image of what South Asian immigrants want to celebrate. And as the children of South Asian immigrants, we know those pressures. You are not supposed to marry Black, and you are not supposed to listen to hip hop or affiliate with Black people. But people identify with her as South Asian because she is the respectable, centrist, accomplished image of South Asians in the United States. Now, if she was someone who was super progressive, or was an artist, or a sexually explicit rapper, I'm not so sure South Asians would be like, yeah, Kamala Harris is our beacon of arrival in the United States.
What does caste have to do with that?
She's a Brahmin, and in the Indian caste system, Brahmins are at the top. And I think that this really overlays Indians' pride in her, especially in India, because she is the daughter of an upper-caste woman. It is not as if she is a Shatri or a Shudra or an "untouchable" or a Dalit, which would create some tension among Indians that she would be a representative of Indian arrival.
Even given all the ways that she's "respectable," I'm still a little bit amazed that so many South Asians are openly embracing Kamala Harris, when, as you mentioned, anti-Blackness is still common among many South Asian communities. What do you make of that?
Well, I think the South Asians don't really have a choice. I mean, there's probably some South Asians who are so anti-Black that they are not celebrating her. But, you know, there's a big enough Democratic South Asian presence who knows that they should not publicly be so anti-Black, so they can celebrate Kamala Harris as Indian, while understanding that she's also Black. But it doesn't mean that they'd want their sons to marry her.
It's very liberal right now to be an American and to celebrate Kamala for both being Black and for being Indian. These kinds of dynamics are really complicated—and they're cross cut by a lot of things. Also, because there's so little representation of Asian Americans in real life, outside of the very few that are in the mainstream media or Hollywood, that we have to kind of grab onto anything that comes our way. And that is a devastating and sad part of racial politics in the United States, the true and deep and historic racial invisibility of Asian Americans.