Ever since US Senator Kamala Harris became the Democratic VP nominee, there has been much hype around her African-American roots and almost as an afterthought, some commentators talk about her Indian heritage and at times, her Tamil heritage.
Many Indians and Tamils across the world are not exactly celebrating her ascension in American politics because she is more often or not portrayed as ‘the first African-American woman nominated to run for VP…’ Furthermore she deftly avoids playing up her Indian connection. She will however do just that on the campaign trail when addressing the large and powerful Indian diaspora.
In many ways Kamala Harris is a lot like Barack Obama who also has mixed heritage and both had fathers that abandoned their families when they were under ten. Both fathers came to the US to pursue higher education. Barack’s father went to University of Hawaii and later Harvard, while Kamala’s father attended the University of California, Berkeley. Barack was brought up by his single white mother while Kamala was raised by her Tamil mother.
In American politics and popular culture, it seems to be politically expedient to identify and assume the identity of a black person if one has to make a choice. Take famous rapper Drake whose black father coincidentally divorced his white Jewish wife when he was only five-years-old. When is the last time you heard Drake play up his white and Jewish side? In many interviews he proudly says he identified with blacks more than whites.
It is likely that Kamala Harris, Obama and Drake for example would not have made it this far in their respective fields had they chosen to identify with the race of their mothers who raised them.
For all this talk about equality between the sexes, when it comes to identifying with a race, male patriarchy triumphs. None of these individuals have any qualms assuming the identity of their fathers who abandoned them. They were more influenced by the color of their fathers’ skin rather than the contents of their character. When it comes to race, their mothers get a short shrift. Make no mistake, they are all feminists who have high regard for their mothers, not so much that part of their heritage.
In the case of ‘phoney’ (as President Trump calls her) Kamala Harris, many blacks like Indians and Tamils are confused because although she claims to be African, they wonder if she is black enough. Although she touts her African heritage, some wonder if being the offspring of a Jamaican father and an Indian Tamil mother qualifies her as African-American.
Some purists argue that she should not be considered the nation’s first African-American vice president because her heritage does not trace back to slavery.
In his book “Obama: From Promise to Power” David Mendell says there’s an idea of a “post-racial” candidate, who transcends the labels of race to appeal to all races. He believes most Americans view Obama as black and appeals to both black and white audiences and that has translated into political success. Kamala is literally walking in his footsteps.
Race in America or for that matter anywhere in the world is a combustible topic that can lead to very dangerous places. Back in the early 20th century, one of the Jim Crow laws passed in the South to ‘protect’ the white race, the law generally stated that if a person had even one ancestor of African ancestry — one drop of black blood — they were considered black. These days Americans have no problem with this racist premise.
Race matters in the UK has received a lot of attention in recent years, all thanks to Meghan Markle. In the UK, there was little discussion about her white heritage, she was/is referred to as biracial while in the US, the press refers to her race as black. Markle has a black mother and a white father.
The 2000 U.S. Census was the first time Americans were allowed to identify themselves as “multiracial,” and more than six million people checked more than one box in the race and ethnicity category.
Meanwhile many Indians in the US are understandably indifferent to the success of Kamala Harris because she has never given her Indian heritage the same status as her black heritage, although she claims to have been highly influenced by her Tamil mom and on India’s recent Independence Day said she credited her mother for developing a love for ‘good idli’. I highly doubt she will talk about idlis and dosas when talking to mainstream American audiences. To them she is nothing but America’s first African-American woman to be nominated as VP. That narrative is highly saleable to voters. It worked well for Barack Obama, and there is no reason to doubt it will work again!