Leadership | The first, but not the last

Ishanee Chanda

In this piece, originally published in Italian in 27 Ore/Corriere della Sera on March 2, ISD graduate fellow Ishanee Chanda reflects on the global and personal impacts of Kamala Harris’ ascent to the vice presidency.

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a virtual roundtable with women’s leadership groups on the American Rescue Plan, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Image: White House/Lawrence Jackson)

On January 20, a tiny village in the south of India was alight with firecrackers and rangoli, as residents celebrated the inauguration of the first South Asian American to take the office of the vice presidency of the United States of America. Thulasendrapuram is nestled in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and was the home of Kamala Harris’s maternal grandfather PV Gopalan, the man who inspired her interest in public service. Her face was plastered through the streets, and the people chanted “Congratulations, Kamala, the pride of our village.”

When I first heard that Kamala Harris was running for president of the United States in 2019, I was intrigued. I did not know much about Harris besides her fiery speeches on the Senate floor and her impeccable fashion sense. She had a passionate energy about her balanced, with a contagious laugh that had the ability to put people at ease. But president of the United States? Was America ready for that? I could not hope. After all, watching Hillary Clinton suffer defeat in 2016 was still etched in my brain.

But Harris continued to build up her campaign. I noted the reservations that California residents had about her as previous attorney general of the state. I listened to my Black friends speak on their celebrations and hesitations regarding her political positions and general record. I took a step back because — while I felt like I could discuss Harris’s political standings — I recognized the need to make space for Black voices that had been historically underrepresented in the room.

I didn’t realize that Kamala Harris was South Asian until three months into her campaign.

My dad and I were sitting on the family room sofa chatting one day. We had just gotten off the phone with my grandfather who has been asking me questions about my master’s degree in public service, otherwise known as my passion in life. At the time, my father had paused to look up at me.

“You know that Kamala Harris’s grandfather was an Indian civil servant too, right?”

I blinked at him.

“Indian?”

He looked astounded.

“You didn’t know?”

Identity is a complicated thing. So many times, we see someone and attribute them to a small box in our heads, categorizing them by the color of their skin, the way they speak, and how they conduct themselves. But what we forget is that people contain multitudes. And the truth was, Kamala Harris was a multitude that had just caught me off-balance.

I consumed all the information I could get about her after that. I learned about her mother Shyamala Gopala, an American scientist whose work advanced the studies of breast biology and oncology. I learned how Harris’s grandfather helped Zambia manage an influx of refugees from the former Zimbabwe. I combed through her social media for references to Indian-hood, tweets about Diwali, even her wishes on Indian Independence Day and her firm tweets to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I had spent so many years lamenting that there was no one who looked like me doing the things I wanted to do in public service, when she had been right underneath my nose. For the first time, I saw what I could be, a version of my future I wanted so badly to achieve.

When I first started at my undergraduate university, the world around me was predominantly white and male. It was the same in every political science classroom I sat in — the professors called on my male colleagues first, my brown skin was seen as less than but exotic all the same, and no one believed that the Indian girl could ever know about the deepest intricacies of America. After all, how could you trust someone whose native language isn’t even English to represent a whole country of people that looked completely different from her own?

Vice President Kamala Harris walks through the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, en route to record a video message. (image: White House/Lawrence Jackson)

In her vice presidential acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Harris thanked all the members of her family, particularly her chitthis. It’s a Tamil term of endearment for a mother’s younger sister, a paternal uncle’s wife, or a stepmom, and Harris used it on a world stage. Before that moment, I could never imagine being able to use my native tongue in front of millions of people and acknowledge my Indianness in a way that felt palpable, real. I later watched Harris make dosas with fellow South Indian actress Mindy Kaling, talking about her heritage, her mother, her grandfather, and her mixed-race identity. The next day, she shook hands with prospective voters around the country and five months later, she was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States.

I have always wondered if the world would accept me enough to get me to the places I want to go. You see, I am an Indian American, a woman with a desire to dedicate my entire life to public service, a young student with dreams to change the lives of every single person I meet. I speak six different languages, my skin is not the color of alabaster but of warm soil instead, and I believe in a god that isn’t Protestant or Catholic or anything related to the roots of how this country was built. And at the same time, I envision my future as one that fights for this country every single day. I want to fight for an America that looks like me, that understands that there is only one way we can move in this life: forward.

Vice President Kamala Devi Harris showed me that this country can accept me for who I am in the spaces I want to be in. I see the shattered glass ceiling littered at my feet and hear celebrations of womanhood bursting like firecrackers around the world. And in the moments when I feel nervous or hesitant about letting people see who I really am, about letting them see all the different things I represent, I remember that a Black woman of South Asian heritage is the vice president of the United States of America, that a woman who speaks the language of her mother and grandfather sits in the second highest office in this land that we call home.

I remember that as long as I fight for this country, it will fight for me — that me and all the other little Indian girls running down the street on inauguration day with firecrackers in our hands have finally found hope in the woman, in the country, that showed us that the future is bright and it can truly be ours.

Ishanee Chanda is the Dulles graduate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program in the School of Foreign Service. She is the co-founder of the non-profit, Mamalas, Women at Work.

This piece is part of a series on Leadership by members of WCAPS — Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security & Conflict Transformation — and other members of the broader ISD community.

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