Moments after Sen. Kamala D. Harris was announced as the vice-presidential pick for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, ABC News tweeted a list of seven facts about the California senator. The list included her age, her committee appointments, her marital status, and her race, identified by ABC as “African American.”
There was nothing about another part of Harris’s heritage: With a Tamil mother, Harris identifies as half-Indian. Her father is from Jamaica.
“They listed so many things,” said Kiara Soobrayan, whose family is also from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and has spent many years living in the U.S. “They listed that she has two stepchildren. But they didn’t list that she is Indian American.”
Soobrayan, 24, is used to seeing Harris identified as Black or African American, with news outlets highlighting the historic nature of her presidential run, and now her vice-presidential candidacy: Harris is the first Black woman to appear on a presidential ticket for a major party. It makes sense for the media to discuss Harris’s historic candidacy in terms of her Black identity, said Soobrayan. Black people have experienced hundreds of years of oppression in this country, she said — Asian Americans have not.
But Harris is also the first Asian American woman on a presidential ticket. To not mention this part of Harris’s identity, on a long list of facts about the candidate, Soobrayan said, was one step too far.
“My issue is when her Indian heritage is completely left out of the story, as if it doesn’t exist. I like to consider myself as belonging to U.S. culture,” she said. “This emphasizes the idea that ‘You are not one of us.’”
As soon as Harris’s nomination was announced Tuesday afternoon, Asian American women began commenting on the nature of the headlines. Media organizations “seem to be forgetting” that Harris is the first Asian American, as well as the first Black, vice-presidential nominee, tweeted Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim. Women urged the media not to erase Harris’s Indian American identity, especially when Harris has been quick to claim that identity herself.
It was frustrating to see a New York Times announcement about “the first Black woman vice-presidential candidate,” says Seher Chowdhury, 24, who identifies as South Asian.
“The New York Times has known Harris long enough to know she is not just Black,” said Chowdhury. “It’s such a little thing, but the historic value of the moment called for something better.”
Chowdhury, based in Boston, had been hoping Biden would choose Harris as his vice president. But she hadn’t expected to be so moved by the announcement.
“I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, she is South Asian American, she is a child of immigrants, she is a woman,” she said. “All three of those things are me, too.”
Growing up, Shalini Thoniyil, 22, said she internalized the idea that she should reject her South Indian culture to be successful in the United States. This was partly because of how few Indian Americans she saw in mainstream media. Thoniyil doesn’t agree with some of Harris’s politics — particularly her record as a prosecutor, putting young people of color in jail. Still, she says, it’s powerful to see someone as prominent as Harris claiming her Indian American identity.
There aren’t many South Asian women in U.S. politics. Chowdhury says she can only think of two: Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R).
It’s especially significant to see someone of South Indian descent in such a high political position, said Thoniyil, whose family is from Kerala, a state in South India. The media tends to focus on North Indian culture, she says, leaving people to assume, for example, that all Indians primarily speak Hindi, when it’s only prominent in the north.
Harris’s nomination feels monumental for Asian Americans more broadly, said Cera Chen, 31, who identifies as Chinese American. While the success of recent movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” has helped, Chen says, she still struggles to find people she identifies with in the media. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is Asian American, was given far less speaking time than other candidates in the Democratic presidential debates.
Harris’s nomination, Chen says, “makes me feel seen.”
It’s not surprising that the media would choose to focus on Harris’s Black identity in this political moment, says Soobrayan.
“Black Lives Matter is such an important topic right now,” she said. Having a Black woman on the ticket, she says, undoubtedly “looks good” for the Democratic Party. That could be especially true, Soobrayan says, because Biden and Harris are both fairly centrist in their politics.
“Emphasizing the fact that Harris is Black might make the ticket seem slightly more left-leaning than it is.”
The point is not to talk about Harris’ Black identity less, said Chen.
“It’s about adding on to the end of that.”
In the U.S., Soobrayan sometimes feels like certain identities are perceived as “more or less American” than others. She wonders whether many see an “inherent foreignness” in people of Indian descent. When the mainstream media ignores Harris’s Indian roots, she says, they confirm her suspicions: Her own identity does not warrant coverage.
Whenever she sees Harris’s Indian American identity mentioned, Chowdhury says, she feels “validated on a national level.”
“I’m like, yes, they got it, they finally remembered,” she said.
Harris’s nomination is a unique opportunity for the media to explore the tensions and challenges of being biracial, said Thoniyil. It can be a conflicting and confusing way to grow up, she said. In her own experience, she says, many South Asian communities are “riddled with anti-Blackness.” She would love to hear more about Harris’s experiences growing up in that environment.
“What does it mean to be from two identities and two backgrounds?” said Thoniyil.
The most interesting stories about Harris, she says, will emerge from the intersection.