We claim her as our own. We share her with you. But her story is an American story — of struggle, change and hope.
No doubt. Kamala Harris is a Black woman. The US senator, who is, perhaps, less than a day away from being elected as the first female vice-president of the United States, was born in Oakland and raised in Berkeley. She went to Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, one of the “Divine Nine” U.S. Black sororities and fraternities. In America, you don’t get much Blacker than that.
But she is also, very much, a child of India. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was born in Chennai and met her father, Donald J. Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica, during a protest at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early ’60s.
Kamala and her younger sister Maya had a middle-class upbringing in northern California but were not sheltered from the racial complexities of America in the ’70s, especially as someone who shared multiple cultures — Black and Indian.
But even in the Bay Area, one of the most racially diverse regions of America — the population today is more non-white than white in most of its major counties — the voices of those of colour struggle to be heard over the pain of past injustices. Berkeley, for instance, had a history of racial segregation, with redlining — the practice of banks refusing to write mortgages in predominantly Black neighborhoods — dating back to 1933 and many areas having restrictive covenants that prohibited minorities from living in certain neighborhoods. It was hard to be of both worlds.
Still, in America, our diversity is our strength, even though there are many today trying to widen the cracks between us rather than bring us together. For those who grew up with multicultural backgrounds, with feet in both worlds, they see themselves as America, the embodiment of what actually makes this country great.
And that’s the America voters will be choosing.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey of multiracial American adults showed that while 59 percent felt their backgrounds made them more open to other cultures, 55 percent said they have been subject to racial slurs or jokes. About one in four (24 percent) have also felt annoyed because people have made assumptions about their racial background, the “where-are-you-really-from” question.
I’ve known Kamala for more than 20 years — we both lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’90s. I was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News, and she was a talented prosecutor and district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco, later to become the state’s first attorney general of African American (and Indian) heritage.
We are about the same age, with similar circumstances as young Black kids in America. My father was a U.S. Army officer from North Carolina – I was born in Germany while he was stationed there in the mid-’60s. My mother was a passionate schoolteacher who grew up in New Jersey.
Like Kamala’s parents, both my parents had graduate degrees. This, too, was normal among many of the Black families we grew up around.
Like Kamala and Maya, my older sister and I would often be the only or one of just a few Black children in our classes, or on our sports teams, or in one of many extracurricular activities. In the ’70s and ’80s, we’d wear Brittania jeans and watch Soul Train on Saturday mornings. We’d go to cookouts on the weekends and get in trouble for sneaking out of the house in high school. Like Kamala and Maya, that was our normal growing up.
We would joke that we knew more about the customs, tastes and practices of white America than they knew about ours. We had to listen to their music while cruising in their cars. We had to listen to their Led Zeppelin and eat their under-seasoned chicken at the soccer team potluck. We had to learn their traditions, but they knew little about our lives, our habits, our world.
On a recent cooking video with actress Mindy Kaling, who is also of Indian heritage, Kaling shared with Kamala some spices given to her by her father. Kamala joked about how her mother would also put her spices in Taster’s Choice glass coffee jars. “This is exactly what my mother would do,” she reminisced while preparing dosas and potato curry. “Apparently it is a thing.”
(My mother would use old Crisco shortening cans from frying the chicken to store leftovers.)
Taster’s Choice coffee jars. Crisco cans. Again, that was our normal. As African-American or Jamaican/Indian kids growing up in America in the ’70s, we’d go to the same schools and wear the same clothes as our white friends, but we’d still be seen through an unfamiliar lens.
It didn’t seem fair. Our normal should have been just as valid as the white kids’ normal. Still, as it is today, we were unusual or exceptional — in the eyes of many white American adults who had limited expectations of Black people. It still irritates me how we were made to feel different.
We’re in this country, we’re of this country, but still, in 2020, we don’t feel others think that we are this country. This, despite the fact that, by 2045, the US Census predicts that America will more non-white than white.
It’s true that Kamala Harris identifies as Black. And she identifies as Indian. But she first identifies as American. As American as dosas and fried chicken. That’s the America that we live in now. That’s all that should matter.
In her memoir The Truths We Hold (2019), Kamala recalled her mother’s words to her: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 3, 2020 under the title ‘An American Story’. Bryan Monroe is an associate professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and was formerly the editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine and the editor of CNN Politics digital.
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