Can South Asians Claim ‘Kamala Aunty’ Sans Her Blackness?

Celebrating vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris as ‘Aunty’ calls into question the community’s anti-blackness.

Updated
The Indian American
6 min read
Kamala Harris, the first South Asian person on a US presidential ticket, has been claimed by the South Asian community as ‘on of our own’. 
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Identity is often oversimplified. It is conflated into neat, colour-inside-the-line labels. In the case of Kamala Harris, it has been ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’.

Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Harris is the first-ever Black female and South Asian person to share a major-party presidential ticket.

Since her nomination as Joe Biden’s running mate, Harris’ South Asian identity has been on blast. Both mainstream and social media are flooded with stories about Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan; her trips to India as a young kid; and her correct pronunciation of ‘chithi’ on the world stage of the Democratic National Congress.

But, unlike how the South Asian community is playing up the Indian side of her heritage – even lovingly referring to her as ‘Kamala Aunty’ – identity is a lot more than two-tonal colour blocking.

Can South Asians Claim ‘Kamala Aunty’ Sans Her Blackness?
(Screenshot: Twitter)
Can South Asians Claim ‘Kamala Aunty’ Sans Her Blackness?
(Screenshot: Twitter)
Can South Asians Claim ‘Kamala Aunty’ Sans Her Blackness?
(Screenshot: Twitter)

In this loud celebration of her South Asian heritage, there has been an erasure of Harris’ Black identity.

ANTI-BLACKNESS IN SOUTH ASIAN COMMUNITIES 

The silence around Harris’ Black identity among the South Asian diaspora has caused some to question the anti-Blackness that is deeply entrenched in the community.

In her memoir, Harris recounted how although she was brought up primarily by her Indian mother, Gopalan, she “understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women,” Harris said.

“Anti-Blackness has a longstanding and complex legacy in the Indian Subcontinent, and manifested in relation to questions of indigeneity and caste”, explains Shaista Patel, an ethnic studies professor at UC San Diego.

“South Asians who settled (in America) and in other Western nation-states have also brought with them their own social habits, norms and religious customs, such as the institution of caste. Caste boundaries continue to be sacredly policed (pun intended) and caste violence actively exercised but continues to be one of the best-kept secrets of South Asian diaspora.”
Shaista Patel

As the word goes, there’s a ‘No Blacks’ marriage rule that is often spoken of in South Asian American households albeit in hushed tones.

“I have heard various Indians in my life – distant family, former friends, sundry acquaintances – espouse horrible stereotypes about Black people, use hurtful language, say terrible things about Black people they know, expound on retrograde opinions, call themselves liberal but then misunderstand the point of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and other movements,” Nitish Pahwa, a journalist at Slate, told The Quint.

In a recent episode of The Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj called out the South Asian diaspora’s ‘hypocrisy’.

“Asians, we love seeing Black excellence, Barack (Obama), Michelle (Obama), Jay Z, Beyonce... how could we be afraid, we love Black America. Yeah, on screen, in our living rooms. But when a Black man walks into your living room and god forbid wants to date or marry your daughter, you call the cops.”
Hasan Minhaj

CASTE AND COLOUR

Caste is not the only hierarchy carried over by the South Asian community from India. The anti-Blackness has to do a lot of colour, too. And the Indian stigma against dark-skin pre-dates colonialism, and may be traced back to caste hierarchies.

“There is this sense about how important colour is, complexion is. This Indian context is reflected when Indian-Americans go abroad. The cultural dynamics which makes fairness a category above say dark complexion, you subconsciously take that approach when you travel abroad because that’s how you’ve been brought up. A lot of it is simply that ignorance,” South Asian scholar, Harsh Pant, told The Quint.

Even in his episode of The Patriot Act, Minhaj had pointed out the hypocrisy among the community, who will mock anyone in their family who is dark-skinned.

“You know what we call Black people? We call them kaala, which means Black but not in a good way.”
Hasan Minhaj

And even as a lot many young South Asians in England and North America have been inspired by icons of Black diaspora culture, in say, their music, such fusions do not lead to automatic solidarity with Black people.

‘MODEL MINORITY MYTH’ AND DIFFERENT LIVED EXPERIENCES 

What cannot be overlooked in Harris’ hyphenated identity is her lived experience of being a Black woman in America.

“Harris’ Black heritage carries the deep weight of a country that has oppressed Black people for centuries. She was born right when the civil rights movement was on the verge of achieving some of its greatest victories in the US (the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act), she benefited from busing legislation, and she attended a historically Black college and joined a historic Black sorority while there,” Pahwa told The Quint.

“She’s visited India many times and has spoken proudly of her Indian heritage, but America perceives her as a Black woman, and she carries all that history in her experience from childhood,” he added.

Indian-Americans feel a sense of superiority as they are in a better socio-economic pecking order.

“When you look at Indian-Americans, they are one of the most-educated, richest, and now politically-powerful constituencies in America. Their engagement with the African-American community is relatively limited. When Indian migrants travel to America, they travel in certain industries, in certain sectors which are not necessarily the sectors in which African-Americans dominate. This is a milieu wherein certain kinds of wealth structures matter. African-Americans are relatively marginal to that engagement. There is a very different socio-economic context,” Pant added.

Devi Ruia, a second-generation Indian American and student-journalist at Pitt News, added, “When Indians did migrate to America, a lot of the people that came were people who had to be well educated and upper middle class, like my family. It has kind of created this ‘model minority myth’ in that, you know, all Indians have to be a certain way. We are well off, have good jobs.“

”Often times I have seen white people, especially Republicans, point to Indians managing to be successful as a way to hate on Black Americans for not being able to do the same,” she added.

In reality, the success of South Asian American immigrants have roots in the civil rights movement wherein enslaved Black Americans fought for their civil right to freedom.

Out of the movement came the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which paved the way for South Asian Immigration to the United States. The persistent campaigns and struggles of African American civil rights leaders finally resulted in sweeping legislation for all racial minority groups with new references to immigration, voting rights among others.

Speaking of the disparity in the lived experiences of Brown and Black Americans, Pahwa said, “You can mark it most starkly by recounting America’s Black history: The centuries of slavery, the breakdown of Reconstruction, the continued segregation, discrimination, and violence to this day.“

“Black Americans carry the weight of a country that has sought to hurt them to an extent and in very specific ways. Indian Americans have the pain of a country that has discriminated against them in myriad ways, but they simply do not carry this same weight of history,” he added.

In government, identity is rarely apolitical. The Indian-American vote has the potential to be a ‘game-changer’ in the 2020 US Election, and so Kamala Harris’ previously-invisible, now-heightened Indian identity can and should be deciphered as a strategic move.

But, as we do celebrate her heritage and the representation of South Asian, “someone who looks like us,” identity on a global political stage, it is also time we look inward, question our own biases, and start the difficult conversations.

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