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I just spent the last fifteen minutes enjoying a new TikTok cultural phenomenon. Wakhra Dougie. It’s blowing up on TikTok. Combining the Dougie with bhangra dance moves is certainly fun, but on a deeper level, isn’t it a lot more? What could be a better way to express joy in the choice of Kamala Harris as the next VP candidate for the Democratic party?
Kamala Harris made history last week when she became Joe Biden’s running mate. Immediately, every desi had an opinion on it. While most were excited to see a person from their part of the world represented, it brought on the doubters. She is often described as the “first Black woman” every time she breaks another glass ceiling. That irks the Indians. Is Kamala Harris desi enough? She’s only half Indian and why doesn’t she speak to it more often? She only comes to our community when she needs to raise money but not much else. How can she represent us?
I am sure there is a reason for that, part deeply personal and part, a commentary of our cultural expectations.
Senator Harris was raised in the East Bay in the sixties, but it was not the Bay Area we know of now. Her mother Shyamala Gopalan fell in love with a Jamaican economist, married him, and had two daughters. Raising two girls who were mixed brown and black was not that easy then, and not now either. If we desis are honest with ourselves, we know that we are not the most open of cultures to “otherness”.
My guess is that her mother recognized this and decided that she would raise her children in a culture that would be more accepting of them. As Ms. Harris described in her memoir, “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls.” Going on to study at a HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) Howard University helped cement this identity.
Then, there is the larger society as well. Since they were racially half Black and appeared Black, they would always be identified as Black. As research by the Pew Center says, “How you were raised, how you see yourself and how the world sees you have a profound effect in shaping multiracial identity.”
I always found it very curious that President Obama, who was essentially raised by his white mother and grandparents, identified as a Black man.
What does that say about our society’s cultural expectations?
My daughter, raised in America to a Sindhi dad and me, a Tamilian mom, says “Because I can’t speak any Indian language, my friends tell me I’m not actually Desi-American—that I’m just a coconut—brown on the outside and white on the inside.” A friend of mine in San Diego was lamenting how her half desi-half Peruvian teenage daughter is not invited to the Indian parties of her peers because she is not “Indian enough”.
What in the world does that even mean? If we are this quick to judge kids, who for the most part are proud of their biracial identities, imagine the Harris family in the 1960s.
Kamala Harris has often admitted herself that she struggles to define herself for others. For me, she is a representation of our multicultural, blended, fluid society where everything is up for grabs. Why not race? She “is both” Black and Indian.
Why are we expecting her to be everything to both communities?
But as we are all learning through the stories of the BLM movement this year, our histories ( Black and Asian Americans) are intertwined. Rev. Martin Luther King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha movement which led to the Civil Rights movement here in America. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 led to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which directly affected most of us Asians in this country. It opened up the door for us to immigrate. We would not be here if not for the thousands of Black Americans who took to the streets to fight for their rights.
At a time in history now, where civil rights and immigration are at the center of our civil and political discourse, Senator Kamala Harris uniquely brings a viewpoint and life experience that could help us move forward.
The fact is that both parties in the United States use racial identity to segment the voting blocs to their advantage. Although the financial power of the Indians is increasing, statistically we do not make up a large part of the electorate yet. Eleven million Asian Americans will vote this year but the number of Black voters is estimated at 30 million.
But the funny thing is that the population of people who are two or more races is projected to be the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group over the next several decades, followed by Asians and Hispanics. So, does it really matter how Desi or how Black Kamala Harris is? It should not.
She is both and uniquely American at the end of the day. Let our lack of imagination not box her into one identity.
Her story, her blended heritage will speak more to our children and grandchildren than we can imagine and inspire them to public service and politics. There will come a time very soon, where people like her will be the norm, not the exception in this flat world.
But it would behoove Senator Harris to reach out to our community in a more meaningful manner. We would love to be a part of her journey and have our voices amplified.
Vote for Harris and Biden if you think their policies will be good for America, not what Kamala looks like and which race she belongs to.
We have come a long way, America! I am excited by the journey ahead and I remain optimistic. Maybe doing a Wakhra Dougie mashup TikTok video will be the most patriotic thing you will do today. And Vote!
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents