Desis Should Celebrate Kamala Harris, But Also Hold Her Accountable
by Anika Agrawal & Priya Shukla
How can we be at peace with making Desi history while at the same time being critical of the Desi people making it? Kamala Harris is at the front and center of this debate.
In August, Harris made history as the first woman of color to accept the nomination of vice president for a major political party. Born to Jamaican and Tamilian immigrants, Harris’ new political position warrants pride from Black and South Asian communities; too few people of Indian origin have occupied such visible political positions at the national level.
So many south Asians have been galvanized by Harris’ nomination, but she is seen as far more controversial within the Black community. Indeed, representation matters. But, how Harris represents the people who share her identity matters as well. Thus, we are calling on our fellow members of the Indian diaspora to hold Kamala Harris accountable for the wrongs she has committed in the past and for the changes she could effectuate in the White House.
Harris is not the candidate that many Black Americans were hoping for due to her problematic history as a prosecutor. Not only did she attempt to incentivize children’s attendance in school by threatening parents with criminal action, but she also ignored police and prosecutorial misconduct. She even proudly declared her allegiance with police — whose brutality against Black people is unparalleled, unjust and unforgivable — by styling herself as the “top cop” in California four years ago and a “progressive prosecutor” during her stalled campaign for president. As senator, she has introduced bills that ban severe measures police have taken in recent history (such as choke holds) and attempted to declare lynching a hate crime, but if she steps into the role of Vice President, there is far more work that must be done.
Harris’ nomination should cause Indian immigrants to look inwards at the anti-Black, caste-ist and colorist stigmas within our own communities as we rally behind her. After over 100 days of protests against the specific ways police brutality is exacted on Black people in this country (and is lionized in our mother country), in a time where it is more clear than ever that we need criminal justice and prison reform that downsizes police departments rooted in slave patrols, and it is difficult to imagine a former cop leading such efforts. We cannot cheer for her Indian-ness, while ignoring her Blackness. We cannot jeer the birtherism that surrounds Harris, without acknowledging the racist birtherism that also followed Obama due to his African father. By only celebrating her Indian half, we become complicit in the erasure of Black representation. We must recognize that Harris’ identity as a Black and Indian woman is dual, and that one cannot exist without the other.
We must acknowledge that Indians, including Harris, are not model minorities; we are flawed and empowered three-dimensional people worthy of representation and poised to make change. The false and demeaning stereotype that Asian-Americans work hard and assimilate easily into the American populus is damaging. It not only erodes our own cultures, but it perpetuates false ideas about the capacity of Black people.
Anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments will certainly continue to follow Harris, but as South Asians excited to see ourselves represented in the White House, we must recognize that we are also responsible for shutting down any anti-Black racism we encounter. We must recognize that South Asians and Black Americans have both been subjugated by colonialism, but that Black people have a specific and horrific relationship with this country that Indian-Americans do not.
With only one Senator (Harris) and seven members in the House of Representatives of Indian origin, her job is especially critical. She is a progressive vice presidential candidate whose work must counter the counterfactual efforts of conservative, assimilationist Desi politicians like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal.
Harris’ (and Biden’s) opposition certainly would not advance the interests of either Indian Americans or Black Americans. But, our democracy necessitates that we ask and expect the best out of the people we are choosing to represent us. Problematic as Harris’ previous stances have been, her nomination is opportunity for progress. But, that means that if/when she enters the White House (whether that’s 2021 or 2025) we continue to hold her (and Joe Biden!) accountable.
It is the least we can do — after all, the civil rights movement that Black Americans have led is what paved the way for immigrants like us in the first place.
Anika Agrawal is a master’s student at Texas A&M at Galveston studying marine biology. She aspires to advocate for queer people of color like herself and finds joy and much to learn from her Desi community. You can find her on Twitter @AquaticAnika.
Priya Shukla is a PhD student at UC Davis studying climate change and marine science. She is an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in science and society who is trying to re-acquaint herself with her Desi identity. You can find her on Twitter & Instagram @priyology.