Kamala Harris, daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, defines herself simply as ‘American’

Left, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, when she was a toddler, with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who came to study in America and decided to remain here and marry Donald Harris. Right, Kamala Harris as a child. (Courtesy: Facebook)

SAN FRANCISCO – In early 2010, an Indian American couple hosted a fundraiser in their elegant Pacific Heights home for Kamala Harris, then a Democratic candidate for California attorney general.

Harris had been San Francisco’s high-profile district attorney for more than six years, but Deepak Puri and Shareen Punian had only recently learned that Harris was, as Punian said, “one of our peeps,” a woman whose mother was an Indian immigrant.

They had always assumed Harris was African-American, and so did most of the 60 or 70 Indian American community leaders at the event, many of whom asked Puri and Punian why they had been invited.

“At least half of them didn’t know she was Indian,” said Punian, a business executive and political activist.

Harris, 54, now a U.S. senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, would be several firsts in the White House: the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Indian American and the first Asian American. The daughter of two immigrants – her father came from Jamaica – she would also be the second biracial president, after Barack Obama.

Obama’s soul-searching quest to explore his identity, as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father who as largely absent from his life, was well-documented in his autobiography.

But when asked, in an interview, if she had wrestled with similar introspection about race, ethnicity and identity, Harris didn’t hesitate:

“No,” she said flatly.

Harris stressed that she doesn’t compare herself to Obama, and she prefers that others don’t, either. She wants to be measured on her own merits.

She said she has not spent much time dwelling on how to categorize herself.

“So much so,” she said, “that when I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created.

Senator Kamala Harris speaking at Pratham’s annual gala in New York, September 28, 2018. (Courtesy: Pratham USA)

“My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it,” she said.

Harris’ background in many ways embodies the culturally fluid, racially blended society that is second-nature in California’s Bay Area and is increasingly common across the United States.

She calls herself simply “an American,” and said she has been fully comfortable with her identity from an early age. She credits that largely to a Hindu immigrant single mom who adopted black culture and immersed her daughters in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African-American life.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris writes in her recently published autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was keenly attracted to the civil rights movement and the African-American culture of her new home in the 1960s and 70s. At first, she marched and protested with her black husband, then alone or with the girls after they divorced when Harris was very young.

She brought her daughters home to India for visits, she cooked Indian food for them and the girls often wore Indian jewelry. But Harris worshiped at an African-American church, went to a preschool with posters of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on the wall, attended Civil Rights marches in a stroller, and was bused with other black kids to an elementary school in a wealthier white neighborhood. When it was time for college, she moved across the country to Washington to attend the historically black Howard University.

“Her Indian culture, she held onto that,” said Sharon McGaffie, 67, an African-American woman who has known Harris and her sister, Maya, since they were toddlers living in Berkeley, California. “But I think they grew up as black children who are now black women. There’s no question about it.”

As Harris’ political profile has risen outside her home region, she will face pressure to discuss her heritage from a broader electorate seeking to fully understand her and politically connected Indian Americans who feel she has not previously put as much focus on her South Asian roots.

In her years in the public eye – seven years as San Francisco district attorney and six years at California’s attorney general before her election to the Senate in 2016 – Harris has tended to stress issues over her personal biography.

Harris, in the interview, said that was because, “It’s not about me. It’s about the people I represent.”

She said political campaigns, especially for president, require candidates to explain their background so voters “can figure out why you do what you do.” So while she “was raised not to talk about myself,” she said that is why she wrote her book to lay out the details of her heritage and career.

“I appreciate that there is that desire that people have to have context, and I want to give people context,” she said.

Harris hasn’t tried to shape perceptions of her identity as much as she has simply accepted that most people see her as black, said Robert Smith, a recently retired professor of political science at San Francisco State University who specializes in African-American politics.

“She has not used it politically,” Smith said. “She has not avoided it, she has just kind of said it and moved on: ‘I’m this, I’m this, I’m that, now let’s move on’ to talk about the death penalty or whatever is the issue of the day.”

Smith said Harris’ “blackness was never ambiguous” and she didn’t feel the need to trumpet it.

Her lack of public focus on her heritage has left many people, even in her home state, unaware of her multiracial background. Most people assume she is African-American, and even some friends didn’t know that she was also Indian.

“I had no idea,” said Matthew Davis, a San Francisco lawyer and classmate of Harris’ at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where they graduated in 1989.

“Even though we were good friends, I never really heard her talk too much about her personal life,” said Davis, who also worked with Harris in the San Francisco city attorney’s office before she was elected district attorney.

It was only when she was sworn in as district attorney in 2004, 15 years after they graduated from law school, that Davis learned Harris was half Indian.

“She introduced me to her mother, and that was the first time I knew,” Davis said. “It was a sense of pride for her, but I didn’t get the sense that it was the way she defined herself.”

Even now, Harris still doesn’t seem fully at ease discussing her personal heritage.

In her first campaign stop after announcing for president on “Good Morning America” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Harris appeared on her old Howard campus to take questions.


Maya Harris, John and Sharon McGaffie, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris in August 2013. The McGaffies have known Harris since she was a toddler. (Photo courtesy of Sharon McGaffie via The Washington Post)

“You’re African-American, but you’re also Indian-American,” a reporter said.

“Indeed,” she replied.

“How do you describe yourself?”

“Did you read my book? How do I describe myself? I describe myself as a proud American.”

She said it with a smile, but with an “end-of-conversation” firmness.

Leah Williams, a San Francisco lawyer who has been friends with Harris since the early 1990s, said Harris inherited a “strong sense of self” from her mother, who raised two daughters as a single immigrant mom.

“She’s not a person who doesn’t contemplate herself or her identity,” Williams said in an interview. “But there are just people who get up in the morning and look in the mirror and know who they are.”

Williams, who took her children to Washington to attend Harris’s Senate swearing-in ceremony in 2017, said Harris was “centered and anchored” because she grew up in a house with two other strong women who were role models.

“Growing up, they could all look at each other and see themselves in each other,” Williams said.

Harris agreed that her upbringing was filled with “pride and nurturing” that gave her a solid grounding.

“I’m no different than anybody else,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that I don’t have the doubts and whatever that any normal person has. But . . . I don’t have any doubts about who I am ethnically or racially.”

Harris has often spoken of her mother, a Tamil from Chennai in southeast India, as her inspiration, and she writes about it extensively in her book.

Gopalan graduated from college in India at 19, then moved to California in 1959 and earned a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. There, she met and married Donald J. Harris, who is now an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University. The elder Harris did not respond to a request for comment.

After their divorce, Harris visited her father’s family in Jamaica and stayed in touch with him. But she credited her mother, a noted cancer researcher and civil rights activist who died in 2009, with being “most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become.”

On her visits to India as a child, Harris was deeply influenced by her grandfather, a high-ranking government official who had fought for Indian independence. But while she had a “strong awareness and appreciation for Indian culture,” she writes, her mother raised her in an African-American world.

“From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community,” Harris writes. “It was the foundation of her new American life.”

Sharon McGaffie’s mother, Regina Shelton, ran the preschool that Harris and her sister attended. Because Harris’s mother traveled regularly for her work as a cancer scientist, the girls would regularly stay over at McGaffie’s house, two doors down on a quiet street in Berkeley. Shelton became like a mother to Harris’ mother, and grandmother to Harris.

Kamala Harris, left, stands with John McGaffie, center, his daughter Kenya, front center, her mother Shyamala Gopalan and her sister Maya outside the McGaffie home in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Sharon McGaffie via The Washington Post)

McGaffie said the Harris girls would regularly accompany her family to the Twenty Third Avenue Church of God in Oakland, Calif., an African American protestant congregation. Their mother eagerly encouraged them to go but did not attend herself, McGaffie said.

When Harris was sworn into office as AG and senator, she did so with her hand on the Bible that Shelton carried with her to church every Sunday.

“She has always been engaged in African American politics, community struggles, community organizations, and life,” said Karen V. Clopton, a lawyer and former judge in San Francisco who has been a friend of Harris’s for more than two decades.

Harris’s college choice marked a notable contrast from the rest of her family. Her parentsboth earned PhDs from UC Berkeley, and her sister went to UC Berkeley and Stanford Law School. Harris opted for Howard, one of the country’s most prestigious historically black schools. She said that was largely because her hero, trailblazing lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, went there.

“As a black woman, it gave her a real opportunity to be enveloped in that part of who she is,” said her friend Leah Williams. “She holds that experience close to her heart.”

Four days after addressing reporters at Howard,Harris traveled to South Carolina, a key early primary state with a large African American electorate. She spoke at the annual “Pink Ice Gala” hosted by her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority, which has a network of 300,000 members.

In her official campaign kickoff speech in Oakland, California, last weekend, Harris stood before 20,000 people and spoke of some of her African-American heroes – faces she grew up with on Shelton’s walls.

“When abolitionists spoke out and civil rights workers marched, their oppressors said they were dividing the races and violating the word of God,” she said. “But Fredrick Douglass said it best and Harriet Tubman and Dr. King knew. To love the religion of Jesus is to hate the religion of the slave master.”

Asked in the Washington Post interview how her African-American background has influenced her, Harris said, “It’s kind of like asking how did eating food shape who I am today.”

“It affects everything about who I am,” she said. “Growing up as a black person in America made me aware of certain things that, maybe if you didn’t grow up black in America, you wouldn’t be aware of.”

Asked for an example, she said, “Racism.”

“I grew up in a hot spot of the civil rights movement,” she said. “But that civil rights movement involved blacks, it involved Jews, it involved Asians, it involved Chicanos, it involved a multitude of people who were aware that there were laws that were not equally applied to all people.”

As Harris has become a prominent figure in state and national politics, many Indian Americans are thrilled – and a little surprised to learn of her Indian background.

“It’s only been in the last year or so that she’s really come out and embraced it,” said Aziz Haniffa, executive editor of India Abroad, the oldest and largest South Asian newspaper in the United States.

Harris has never made a secret of her Indian heritage, and has she has fought on behalf issues of importance to most Indians, including immigration reform. She has appeared at Indian American gatherings throughout her career.

Indian American publications proudly use her Indian first name, which means “lotus flower,” along with her middle name, Devi, the Sanskrit word for “goddess,” which Harris generally doesn’t use.

In a 2009 interview with India Abroad, Harris said her Indian background “has had a great deal of influence on what I do today and who I am.” She told the interviewer her African American and Indian heritage “are of equal weight in terms of who I am.”

She continued: “We have to stop seeing issues and people through a plate-glass window as though we were one-dimensional. Instead, we have to see that most people exist through a prism and they are a sum of many factors.”

Shekar Narasimhan, chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, a national super PAC founded in 2015 that focuses on building the political power of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said Harris in the past year has done several high-profile speeches and events with Indian American groups that have helped to raise her profile.

“I’m so glad she has discovered her Indian-ness,” Narasimhan said with a laugh. “It’s sudden, but I absolutely love that it’s happening. It’s not something she has exhibited over the years.”

M.R. Rangaswami, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist, said Harris’s story parallels the rising influence of the U.S. Indian community.

Rangaswami said Indians represent about 1 percent of the population, and now have about 1 percent representation in Congress, with four members of the House of Representatives and one senator.

“My advice to Kamala would be: ‘You’ve got a great story. You should tell it,’ ” he said. “As the community has come of age, there is a yearning for successful role models, and she totally fits that model.”

In the Post interview, Harris said she disagreed with the perception that she has not stressed her Indian background, saying she had “been focused on the Indian community my entire life.”

She said the view that she embraced it wholeheartedly only more recently was “a matter of what people are aware of and what the press has focused on.”

She pointed, for example, to her advocacy as early as 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, when South Asians became the targets of abuse and violence. “I was very active in fighting to make sure that the community was not the subject of hate and bias and ill-treatment,” she said.

“I grew up with a great deal of pride and understanding about my Indian heritage and culture,” she said.

In their San Francisco home, where they hosted the 2010 fundraiser, Puri and Punian said they were enthusiastic about Harris. Puri, a Silicon Valley software executive, and Punian, a finance executive, have helped introduce Harris around Silicon Valley.

Puni said Harris’s multicultural background appeals to many people.

“It’s like a Rorschach test,” he said. “Every person can interpret her differently.”



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