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Varun Saraswathula | What Kamala Harris’s vice presidential election means to me




(Photo by Gage Skidmore | CC by SA 2.0)

Just over a week ago, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, concluding an unprecedented election week in perhaps one of the most important moments in modern American history. Along with his victory came Kamala Harris’ historic vice presidential victory. On January 20, 2021, she will be sworn in as the first woman, first Black woman, and first Indian-American Vice President. 

Until her campaign last year and her nomination as Joe Biden’s running mate in August, I had not given much thought to the idea of what it would feel like to be represented in such a fundamental way. I knew it was important to have more diversity in government, and I was hopeful that we would, but the thought of having someone of Indian descent so close to the presidency hadn’t yet resonated with me in a powerful way. 

Kamala Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born and raised in Tamil Nadu in South India, and came to the United States in search of higher education. That’s where she pursued graduate training in biochemistry, and where she met Kamala’s father, Donald Harris, a Jamaican immigrant. As Kamala grew up, she regularly traveled back to Besant Negar in Chennai, where she would walk along the beach with her grandfather. Over the years, Kamala formed a deep and complex identity as an American, as a Black woman, and as an Indian-American. As she was coming of age, I can’t imagine that those identities were always in harmony, and it certainly must have been difficult to navigate society at times with such a distinct heritage. 

Children of immigrants often know what it feels like to have multiple identities. You have a certain identity with your family, you have another identity at work or at school, and you have a third identity with your siblings, cousins, and friends of a similar background. For me, this third identity is the one that exists in a liminal space that’s neither “American” nor “Indian” — it’s somehow both at once but also has its own separate uniqueness. It comes with the cultural experiences of being someone of Indian descent in America, experiences that are not well known outside of the community. 

Though this “in-between” identity is becoming far more normalized through the work of Hasan Minaj in his stand-up specials and Aziz Ansari in “Master of None,” these stories exist in a world where people are willing to watch them and understand. I find it unlikely that these messages of cultural fluidity and a redefinition of American identity are being readily embraced by many of the people who vote against inclusive immigration policy and support quasi-xenophobhic rhetoric that comes from the far right. 

However, Kamala Harris is a child of immigrant parents. She knows what it’s like to be in that middle world. Though people claim she isn’t, she has always been unabashedly proud of her Indian heritage. She grew up eating Indian food and she made the same summer trips to India that many of us are familiar with. She is a child of immigrants, and that experience she brings to the White House is powerful and inspiring, not just for Indian Americans or Jamaican Americans, but all immigrant Americans.

We have a lot of work to do as a nation to create a more equitable and just society. However, it’s also important to consider how wondrous it is that someone like Kamala Harris can be in office. My grandfather was born and raised in a village in India when it was still a British colony, and now, he’s a citizen of the United States, a nation that will soon have an Indian woman in the vice presidency. Even though hope is difficult to come by these days, we can hold onto the hope that is imbued in that single generation of progress, and Kamala Harris is our reminder.


VARUN SARASWATHULA is a College junior from Herndon, V.A. studying the Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management. His email is vsaras@sas.upenn.edu.





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