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  • Sahmi Chowdhury

The United States Celebrates VP Kamala Harris But Still Can't Talk About Race

Yesterday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into one of the highest offices in the world: The White House. With the promise to restore the “soul of America” through a series of policies that promise to center social, economic, and racial equity amid a relentless pandemic, civil rights movement, and insurrection, the entire world is collectively holding their breaths in observation.

But alongside all of the anticipation and anxiety is immense celebration, much of which is in credit to Vice President Harris, the first woman to be elected for the position. More than that, Vice President Harris is a multiracial woman of color, expanding on the precedent she has pioneered. For a nation that continues to struggle with immense racial tensions and inequities, the election of Vice President Harris promises, at the very least, to propel conversations about race to the forefront of both public and private conversation. These conversations are often projected into the public and private sector by national media, which has shown significant difficulties with holistically acknowledging and elevating the identities and experiences of multiracial folks. Unfortunately, Vice President Harris has not proven to be the exception thus far.

The United States’ Struggle with the Racial Ambiguity of MultiRacial Individuals

The racial paradigm of the United States has historically fallen within the dichotomy of Blackness and Whiteness, with identities, ethnicities and cultures being forced into a spectrum that dictates their distance from the two options. This classification in turn determines the challenges and privileges a person is most likely to experience. Of course, this is by no means a new concept; the novelty of racialization in the United States is its enduring nature and its ability to absorb new cultures and identities that enter its path in order to confine them in a way that continues to sustain the system. An example of this is none other than the South Asian-American/Desi-American identity. In a 2013 and 2015 publication, Vinay Harplani, a professor at UNM School of Law, explores the racial ambiguity that accompanies the South Asian-American/Desi-American classification. Harplani’s examinations provide ample explanation as to why this racial ambiguity exists, such as the “regional distribution of the South Asian American population…[where] the states with the largest populations of South Asian Americans are California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois” (94). He also offers that the sheer diversity amongst physical features across the Desi-American community can make it difficult for the U.S. to definitively determine where it thinks the population falls on the racial litmus test. Indeed, the 55th Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal, who commissioned a portrait depicting him with lightened skin, mocked critics for the artistic decision by posing the question, “You mean I’m not White?” Harpani contrasts Jindal’s association to Whiteness by noting that, “Just one week later in Madison, Alabama, police officers beat and severely injured Sureshbhai Patel–a fifty-seven-year-old immigrant grandfather who had only been in the United States for one week–after a suspicious caller identified him as ‘a skinny Black guy’” (610).

As South Asians, we are excited to see how Kamala Harris represents us and positions herself within her South Asian roots. In the past, the media has positioned VP Harris as a Black, Caribbean individual with an underwhelming amount of acknowledgement to her Asian heritage. Although she was mostly raised by her mother, national media has only recently started to cover her South Indian roots. Harris’ sister even goes on to say, “You can’t know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was.” Indeed, the Vice President dedicates “the reason for everything” to her mother. The issue of multi-ethnicities and multiracial stems from the U.S. media’s inability to embrace multiple cultures within one individual. We have seen the same reaction with the likes of other individuals such as Barack Obama and Tiger Woods.

Kamala Harris is 100% Black, 100% Desi, and 100% American. And neither identity can cancel out or conceal the other.

That being said, we must also take a good look in the mirror and ask ourselves if our Desi community deserves to represent her. Our anti-Blackness needs to be faced, as highlighted by a tweet by comedian Hari Kondabolu that reads, “I wonder if Kamala Harris as VP will have any impact on the ‘No Blacks’ marriage rule Indian immigrants set for their children.” Alongside that, Dr. Dhanashree Thorat, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University who studies race, feminism, and systemic oppression reminds us of the racial slurs and skin whitening creams used by many across the subcontinent. Throat thoughtfully asks their own community, “If we are willing to accept her as a Black woman, are we willing to confront all those things?”

What is the Current Outlook of Having Kamala Harris as Vice President?

Perhaps the most significant of Vice President Harris’ accomplishments so far since being elected into office is the reiteration to the world that EVERYONE, regardless of race, color, and creed, is granted a seat at The White House, especially women of color. She advanced this sentiment during her victory speech by encouraging folks to “dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.” And while this statement was undoubtedly moving for so many individuals, it was especially powerful for many young girls of color within the United States who are now not only inspired to dream big, but will normalize the concept that someone who looks like them and has had similar life experiences can achieve big things.

Vice President Harris also goes by a mantra that her mother had passed on to her to do her work for future generations as well. She explains this more in an interview on Good Morning America where she said, “I was raised by a mother who said that to me all the time: 'Kamala, well, you may be the first to do many things—make sure you're not the last.' And that's how I feel about this moment." As the Vice President rises through the ranks and achieves more over time, I hope she will also pull additional women and people of color up with her.

Last and definitely not least, we will be able to see actual tangible initiatives to solve the crisis that has been caused by Covid-19. The last administration has proven that the government is unprepared and will need immediate action. By making the vaccinations and Covid-19 restrictions a top priority, the Biden-Harris administration can help end this current pandemic.

Things To Be Optimistic About

It is rare to earn an opportunity that allows you to right some of the harshest wrongs you’ve committed. As many are aware, Vice President Harris has been accused of placing many people, particularly people of color—specifically Black folks— in prison for long periods of time for minor possession of drugs or falsely placing people on death row. Given talks we’ve heard coming out of the Biden-Harris administration, prison reform appears to be a significant policy they are looking to implement with all of its complexity, taking into account the over policing of Black and Brown neighborhoods and the dire state of need that our schools are in regarding supplies and staff. Hopefully, this will move us closer to not only effectively addressing but eliminating the mass incarceration complex in the U.S.

Further, on a more personal level, South Asians have anti-Black sentiments deeply embedded into their communities. I hold a lot of optimism that Kamala Harris’ vice presidency will be a key player in helping to bridge the divide. I am also hopeful that she will not fall into the same Catch-22 that Obama unfortunately struggled with— trying so hard to represent the whole country that he did not push the initiatives the Black/African American community needed.

Overall, there is immense excitement blazing the trail of Kamala Harris’ vice presidency. We expect nothing short of amazing.

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