After Kamala Harris was elected America’s first Black, Indian American, and female vice president, South Asians largely reacted with enthusiasm. A September poll found that 72 percent of Indian Americans were going to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). But when the vice president-elect takes office in a few weeks, how are South Asian American communities going to grapple with their legacies of anti-Blackness alongside their celebration of this historical milestone? How will we make sure that we reject model minority tropes and also center her Black identity?
Of course, identifying Harris has been a subject of much contention: some have labeled her as solely African American, others as only Asian American, while others have flat-out questioned her American roots (The Atlantic). Harris was born to a Jamaican American father and an Indian American mother in California. The incoming Biden-Harris administration clearly identifies her as a “Black and Indian American woman.” After the November election, lawyer Deepa Iyer encouraged Brown Americans to not “erase or de-center her Black identity” or “accept that oppression and inequality have ended,” as well as to address “anti-Blackness in systems and our own communities” (Twitter).
There are racist adages in parts of South Asian communities that basically say: Don’t date or marry someone who is Black (The Juggernaut). Whiteness has traditionally been the South Asian aspiration — from skincare products to matrimonial platforms to entertainment. When Indians have called out cultural appropriation in Western pop culture, they often ignore that Bollywood liberally appropriates Black culture and promotes whiteness — spurring the #BollywoodSoWhite movement. For more on colorism in South Asian communities, check out our previous newsletter.
All these issues stem from a legacy of colorism, casteism, and anti-Black sentiment that have pervaded South Asian cultures for years. The community must understand that history in order to course-correct today. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, one of the female characters dislikes her dark complexion. In Islamic history, some followers disliked one of Prophet Mohammed’s companions because he was dark and the son of enslaved people (The Juggernaut).
In more contemporary times, Gandhi was thought to have a “disdain for Africans” during his time living in South Africa (The Washington Post). In the well-known 1923 Supreme Court case in which Bhagat Singh Thind fought for American naturalization, he claimed his high-caste Hindu roots and supposed Aryan blood deemed him white. In 1958, Harris’s Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who moved from South India to Berkeley, California, to pursue higher education, soon participated in civil rights demonstrations (The Atlantic). The civil rights movement, fought by Black Americans, opened doors for the vast majority of South Asians to even move to the United States. The landmark Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 abolished old immigration quotas, allowing immigrants from Asian countries to grow exponentially (History.com). As Sharmila Sen writes in The Washington Post: “Rushing to celebrate our achievements — impressive household incomes, new-construction homes, millennia-old gods, low divorce rates, high SAT scores — we have, on occasion, silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness.”
So many people in my own family have described my late maternal grandfather as a “great man and very handsome, even though he was very dark” — as though his Dravidian roots and South Indian skin were a character flaw he had to overcome. Even Hindu idols are largely depicted with fair skin, though there is some contemporary pushback (BBC News). There are also troubling parallels between race and caste discrimination (The Conversation).
But there is progress being made in 2020. Following George Floyd’s killing, parts of South Asian American communities finally began to discuss anti-Blackness — both in public spheres and in the depths of private WhatsApp groups. A group of my childhood friends who also grew up second-generation in Colorado started a Zoom meetup where we discussed issues of race. Kids are sending their older relatives Letters For Black Lives. Aunties and uncles — some of who participated in summer protests — finally began to understand why Black Lives Matter. We heard the heartening story of the Bangladeshi immigrants in Minneapolis whose restaurant caught fire during demonstrations, and in those moments of distress, expressed solidarity: “Let my building burn … Justice needs to be served” (Medium).
As the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) organization eloquently recommends, in addition to addressing anti-Blackness, it’s time for South Asian American communities to show up for Black communities. It’s time to uplift voices who are not just like me. We need to hear from those who grew up both Black and South Asian to better understand unique multiracial perspectives — like those of Harris. I’m still learning, and I hope more South Asian American peers will join me in this process.
South Asians need to recognize that anti-Blackness in our communities goes back centuries. Whether we’re talking about emerging voices or famous leaders like Kamala Harris, it’s important to acknowledge intersectional identities and not just “Brown-wash” them.
The Asian model minority myth hurts everyone — especially our Black peers.