How do the Indian diaspora feel about Kamala Harris?

Despite her Indian heritage, the Vice President elect hasn’t been celebrated within the Indian community as much as one might expect

The 2020 presidential election result isn’t the progressive shift for America that many may assume or hope it will be. It was not a watershed moment for American attitudes, tolerance, altruism and global outlook. Rather, it provided an opportunity for a very necessary reset from four years of Trump and his toxic, unstatesmenlike conduct and his incendiary, white supremacist rhetoric.

However, Vice President elect Kamala Harris does represent a historic moment for America. A woman VP, and a woman of colour at that, is unprecedented. Putting aside politics for one moment, the optics of her being elected represents a moment akin to the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. It’s a huge moment for people of colour to see someone in their image become the highest ranking woman in US history. Although that isn’t to suggest we blindly endorse anyone purely on the basis of their ethnicity.

Kamala Harris by Lorie Shaull and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When I recall the election of Barack Obama in 2008, there was a global euphoria. A black man was the President of the United States. For people of colour, and specifically black people, this was the shattering of a glass ceiling that we once thought unthinkable.

You see, as a person of colour, there’s often a sense of pride when you see people in your image occupy spaces that systemic racism has excluded you from. As a black person living in the UK, the response to Obama was no different. Moreover, unlike his successor, his conduct as president was a welcome advertisement for black people against a backdrop of negative stereotyping born of systemic racism.

When Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, I thought we would see the same reaction. Not only is Harris a woman of colour but she is of black and Indian descent. As a contributor for the Blindian Project, and with my wife as a woman of Indian descent, my interest in this was admittedly both piqued and personal.

For the black community, and specifically the Jamaican diaspora, Harris’ heritage appeared to be celebrated from the outset. And that was mirrored for many in the South Asian community. Padma Lakshimi, and many other women of Indian heritage, have championed and celebrated their shared Indian heritage and her achievement as a woman of colour. At the Blindian Project, we too have celebrated her Blindian identity and discussed its impact for a generation of black x South Asian interracial relationships. Desi Twitter also showed delight at Harris’ Indian heritage.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think the depth and scope of pride that the black community had for Obama, and latterly Harris, wasn’t matched with the sentiments from the South Asian, and specifically Indian, community. It just didn’t seem as amplified as I thought it might be.

Being in a black x South Asian relationship, I’m uniquely positioned to see perspectives from both the black and Indian diasporas. The conversations and expressions of admiration around Obama that I had with black family and friends in 2008 didn’t seem to be replicated with my wife’s family and Indian friends. With few exceptions, Harris’ selection (and subsequent election) was a non-event in our family group chat and that seemed to be reflected in offline conversations and sentiments I observed too.

There have been some question marks around Harris from her time as Attorney General of California. Her then stance on prison labour and her pursuit of convictions for minor marijuana offences have raised eyebrows. Not to mention, during her tenure, Sikh men were denied from serving as prison guards unless they shaved their facial hair. Although, these aren’t conversations I’ve heard in the community suggesting that many aren’t aware of these concerns.

In the UK, I’ve observed a general political apathy amongst the Indian diaspora when it comes to UK and world politics. So much so that it’s meant an almost indifference to Priti Patel and her toxic politics as part of the Conservative government. Consequently, that’s meant a relative ignorance when it comes to politics outside of India (where many of the diaspora maintain an interest). Although that’s largely in the older generation who emigrated to the UK. Yet for younger Indians, there still seemed to be a disconnect with Harris’ story and the immigrant narrative that we share.

I decided to survey family and friends to gauge their awareness of Harris and her heritage. Months before the election, I gave them an image of Harris. 54% didn’t know who she was and only 23% knew she was mixed race and of black and South Asian heritage.

Was this disconnect because of her mixed heritage being deemed to compromise her Indian identity? Was it just political apathy that had led to ignorance? Or, as world politics, was it too much to ask for an awareness of politics beyond the UK?

There is a sense that it is a culmination of all of the above. Lack of acceptance of mixed race relationships with a black partner is common within the community. For Harris to be celebrated, with a black Jamaican father, would present a dichotomy for many in the community. This would be a feature of her identity that many would find difficult to digest while claiming her as one of their own.

This is an attitude that has become almost inherent to the culture that for many, not seeing her as legitimately Indian may even be subconscious.

Harris being an American politician may of course play a role in any ignorance from the Indian community around her and her identity as someone who was less likely to feature in their everyday conversations. But for many first generation immigrants of the Indian diaspora, they have nonetheless managed to remain attuned to Indian politics.

For many Indians born in East Africa, they’ve even managed to bypass politics in the land of their birth in favour of Indian politics. It begs the questions why a woman of colour with Indian heritage wouldn’t therefore be greeted with a response akin to what Obama received from the black community upon being elected.

If we contrast that reception, it’s largely been replicated within the black community for Kamala Harris but for the Indian diaspora, that celebration doesn’t seem as loud as one might have assumed. Politics aside, her achievement as a woman of colour should be recognised and both the black and Indian diasporas should equally celebrate its significance for our respective communities.

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