Becoming Kamala Devi Harris
When Brahmin and Black identities converge.
Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden's nomination of Kamala Devi Harris for vice president has brought international attention to a political figure fusing Indian American and African American identities. Harris' unusual Brahmin and Black ethno-racial ancestries have provoked a range of reactions from both American and Indian media commentators, with her layered inherited and socially constructed identities coming under scrutiny for a host of reasons: to test her cultural authenticity, as a barometer of her progressive racial and gender politics, and to calibrate her capacity to mobilise electoral cultural capital from diverse constituents. Despite some American commentators criticising her prosecutorial record, a significant section of US-based media has expressed predominantly positive responses to her nomination. Meanwhile Indian media commentators have had mixed responses to the historic significance of her nomination. The transnational media commentary generated around Kamala Harris illustrates the complex ways in which American electoral politics creates conflicting investments in the meanings of a political candidate's race, gender, caste, and class identities.
In the US, debates over Harris' biracial and bicultural identity – Tamil Brahmin and Afro Caribbean – unfold at a historical moment when caste has entered the national public lexicon of racial politics on two critical fronts. First, the recent California lawsuit against CISCO Systems broke the long-standing silence on how Brahminical caste power operates within the so-called model minority of the Indian diaspora to exclude lower castes. Regulators in California sued CISCO Systems following a Dalit employee's recent caste discrimination complaint against two Brahmin managers in the company's San Jose office. Second, journalist Isabel Wilkerson's recent book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents imports the analogy of caste from India – albeit at times in a less than persuasive manner – to diagnose America's persistent racial inequality. Wilkerson argues that the deep-seated racism in America can be best explained if we think of race as the skin and caste as the bones of racial hierarchy.
In a parallel historical moment in India, anti-Black racial inequality has emerged as a topic of debate, illustrating the transnational ways in which events in the US travel and trigger media discourse in other parts of the world. The movement #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd prompted Bollywood celebrities and others in India to share social-media posts expressing support and solidarity for racial justice in the US and globally, even as some of these celebrities were being exposed for their hypocritical endorsement of skin-lightening cosmetics. More significantly, public figures such as Arundhati Roy have used this moment to insert the issue of racism in India into public discourse, drawing attention to anti-Black violence against African immigrants in urban spaces. Further, reversing Wilkerson's analogy of race-as-caste, Roy argues somewhat reductively that caste-as-race could explain dominant-caste Hindu mob lynchings and atrocities committed against minority groups such as Dalits and Muslims. Roy contends that the Hindu mobs' performances of violence emulate the Ku Klux Klan's historical lynchings of African Americans. Such messy and entangled flows of race and caste politics, propelled by the diaspora, social media, mobile-media content, and elite spokespersons, animate commentaries that link Harris' political viability to her ethno-racial identifications.
The logic of the trial
Is Kamala Harris Indian American or Hindu American enough? Is she African American enough? Is she even Caribbean or Canadian? These questions haunt public discourse in the US media and tend to follow sociologist Loic Wacquant's "logic of the trial". Wacquant critiques agents who take inventory of the racial and cultural authenticities of public figures using easy checklists rather than unpack the more complex social and historical processes that enable such figures to claim and become members of ethnic or racial communities. Harris has been conspicuously silent about naming herself a Tamil Brahmin American. Conservative political commentator Sadanand Dhume insinuates in the Wall Street Journal that she "airbrushes" her Brahmin identity in her memoir where neither the word 'Tamil' nor 'Brahmin' make an appearance. He claims that this omission erases her Tamil Brahmin mother's exodus from India precipitated by Nehruvian socialism's persecution of meritocratic Brahmins, thus leading to an unfortunate brain drain. India-based spokesman of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party P Thiaga Rajan has pushed back against this narrative of Brahmins fleeing reverse discrimination as historically inaccurate and instead argues that this voluntary economic migration is rooted in anti-caste social justice movements that challenged a pervasive Brahmin hegemony. Essayist Mukul Kesavan, in an op-ed for NDTV's website, generously suggests that Harris' omission is perhaps her self-aware way of disavowing Brahminical supremacy to instead embrace one version of caste-neutral progressive politics. Indeed, Harris herself has framed her mother as the inspiration for her own progressive feminist politics, one that appears to have little to do with caste, and more to do with tying her Indian grandparents' immersion in anti-colonial resistance to her mother's allegiance to the African American civil-rights struggle.
Nevertheless, some Tamil Brahmin Americans, such as the celebrity Padma Lakshmi, have rejoiced in Harris' caste and vernacular heritage, expressing happiness in a tweet about the vice presidential nominee's reference to her aunt as 'chitthi' (a term used for maternal aunts and close family and friends). In an Instagram post, Lakshmi also spins a nostalgic narrative about shared family histories centred on Besant Nagar and Elliot Beach in Chennai, where both their grandparents lived and might have run into each other. Other Indian Americans have similarly celebrated Harris' Tamil roots, such as Mindy Kaling, who made masala dosa with her in a promotional video during her 2019 presidential campaign and reminisced about growing up and eating South Indian food as Indian migrants to the US. These Tamil American projections of Harris' authentic South Indian identity tied to food and culture emerge in an ethnoscape where dominant signifiers of 'Indianness' remain anchored to North Indian Punjabi or Gujarati culture. It is only recently that a South Indian migrant formation has become more visible through such diverse dominant-caste public figures as Sundar Pichai, Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Hari Kondabolu, Aziz Ansari, as well as Mindy Kaling and Padma Lakshmi. Such impulses to turn up the volume on Harris' muted desi-ness and certify her as South Indian stretch the canvas of 'Indianness' in the US beyond the boundaries of entrenched North Indian cultural emblems like chicken tikka masala, bhangra, and Bollywood. On a cautionary note, the new visibility of a diasporic South Indian 'brownness' in the US does not mean that it is free of casteism, colourism, or classism.
Some Indian Americans – not of Tamil origin – nonetheless take ownership of Harris' candidacy. Community advocate Neil Makhija cherishes the circulation of sepia-toned family photos of Harris' mother posed in a sari alongside her cousins, stating she could be one of their own. Such sentimental claims of a pan-Indian ethnic affinity, however, have not been afforded to prominent Republican Indian American politician, Nikki Haley, who has also been subjected to the logic of the trial, with liberal pro-Democratic Indian Americans deriding her for catering to a white assimilationist gaze because she uses the diminutive 'Nikki' instead of her given name Nimrata Randhawa, converted to Christianity, and took her husband's last name. In the end, politicians' capitulations to the demands of authentic desi performance alone may not be enough to win over all Indian American voters, who, as journalist Mythili Sampathkumar cautiously notes, are not a monolithic group. The younger progressive second-generation Indian American demographic is not enamoured with appeals to ethnic representation and instead votes on the basis of candidate policies. Stepping outside of the Indian American electorate, Bangladeshi American activists have expressed cautious optimism about Harris' nomination potentially paving the way for Southasian women to enter US politics, but in the midst of a pandemic when working-class Southasians have faced economic precarity, they have also openly pointed out her complicity with a legal system that has enabled police misconduct and upheld oppressive carceral institutions.
The racial binary
While downplaying her performances of desiness, Kamala Harris herself has more frequently claimed an African American identity in public settings, and her declarations have largely received positive endorsement from the African American community. Female African American public figures have rushed to her support, discounting the conservative establishment's sexist and racist stereotypes, which have maligned her as promiscuous, opportunist, and controlling of men. While African American women too have serious concerns about her prosecutorial record and its impact on their communities, the public response has largely framed Harris' nomination as a milestone for diverse political representation.
Taking her identity in another direction, Harris has also been slotted as Asian American, a broader classification than the more niche Indian American, with other commentators praising her for disrupting the orientalist American imagination of Asian female docility through her feminist politics. More crucially, given the pervasiveness of anti-Black sentiment in Southasian communities, Harris' public embrace of her Blackness aligned with African American struggles for justice and equality pushes back against the apolitical Indian American model minority image. In fact, sharpening her political rhetoric in the wake of the Trump regime's rush to install a staunchly conservative Supreme Court justice, she has taken to campaigning in crucial swing states amidst the Black electorate, hammering home her party's commitment to affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, and voting rights.
Harris' vocal articulation of a racial justice agenda to African American audiences is all the more significant due to the persistence of a racial binary, which often ignores intra-racial passages of belonging and solidifies a monolithic view of Black identity. How does a child of first-generation immigrants – one Afro Caribbean and one Indian – make the journey from being Jamaican Indian American to African American? For Harris, this evolution towards a US- Blackness has taken place amidst multiple social formations, beginning with her mother's embeddedness in Black community and perhaps cemented by her own choice of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Howard, for her undergraduate education, where she was surrounded by a Black activist student community. It is interesting that the first Black American president, Barack Obama, is also similarly biracial with a Kenyan parent and degrees from east coast Ivy League universities. Obama's African American identity was secured both through his self-identification as Black and Kenyan American and his marriage to Michelle Obama (nee Robinson), an African American woman whose roots go back to the pre-civil-war American South. There are thus multiple ways of becoming African American. There have been very few challenges from African American commentators to Harris' claiming of an African American identity. As a result, in the process of becoming Black, Harris' Afro Caribbean heritage often appears to be relegated to the backburner. This is unlike her more exotic and de facto Tamil Brahmin Indian heritage, which surfaces in spurts here and there and is interrogated for duplicity or authenticity.
Shifting our focus to media commentary in India, Harris' nomination was first celebrated by her chitthi Sarala Gopalan and her uncle Gopalan Balachandran, who took pride in her achievements and her political stances. More controversially, her nomination was quickly picked up by Hindu right-leaning portals where it was not her race or caste, but her ascribed religious identity that became a subject of hot debate. On the website of the rightwing magazine Swarajya, its editorial director R Jagannathan excoriates Harris for being a traitor to Hindu causes whilst proclaiming opportunistic loyalties to her Black Baptist faith. Similarly, Makarand Paranjape dubiously suggests that Harris has shielded her Hindu origins in a bid to ward off liberal American "Hindu-phobic" attacks, which Tulsi Gabbard, a converted Hindu-American, was subjected to during her 2019-2020 presidential campaigns. Seema Sirohi in the leading weekly news magazine India Today, however, dismisses such blatantly "saffron-dhari" attacks, insisting that Harris is both Black and Indian American, and it was African American struggles that opened the door for Indian immigration into the US.
Meanwhile, liberal Indian commentators offer more expansive and nuanced explorations of the possibilities in Harris' nomination, albeit without any mention of caste. Nirupama Subramanian interprets her nomination as a sign of a more inclusive diversity politics in the US political arena, unlike in India, where a similarly placed Muslim politician would have invited accusations of minority appeasement. Her article situates Harris within religious diversity debates in India, drawing an analogy with Muslim political representation, while sidestepping caste and gender exclusion. Educating readers of Indian Express about US electoral racial politics, Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University, astutely suggests that driven by the logic of demography and identity, Harris' amplified African American identity and subdued Indian heritage signal her pragmatic appeal to a sizeable Black electorate and a public embrace of a multiracial America.
In all these responses, commentators have rarely attended to how class and cultural capital have shaped Harris' trajectory, starting from her parents meeting as immigrant doctoral students at an elite west-coast university, her biomedical scientist mother and diplomat grandfather modelling high career aspirations, and Harris' own education at a top historically Black university. The attention to Harris' Tamil Brahmin and Black identities, whether being affirmed or repudiated, neglects how class in combination with caste capital can mitigate racial inequality and facilitate political currency for certain African American citizens. In any case, the pairing of Harris' Afro Caribbean father with her Brahmin mother has incited much conversation about the transgressions of race, caste, and ethnic boundaries. Returning to Wilkerson, is Harris' Blackness in her skin and is her Brahminness in her bones? This critique of media discourses in the US and India centred on Kamala Harris should compel us to recognise race and caste not as essentialist or immutable categories, but as historical and social formations, which under certain contexts and contingencies escape easy classification or reduction to recognisable memes, events, self-serving parables, or cultural artefacts.