- Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Devi Harris’ acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention resonates with and inspires Indian Americans.
California Sen. Kamala Devi Harris made history by becoming the first African American and first Indian American woman to accept her party’s nomination to be its vice presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19. Dressed in a Merlot suit and a silk camisole, Harris appeared calm and composed as she delivered her acceptance speech from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Harris spoke of her vision of America, her biracial immigrant roots, and paid respects to the women who fought for equal and civil rights before her. But most of all, she paid tribute to one woman. “There’s another woman, whose name isn’t known, whose story isn’t shared,” Harris said. “Another woman whose shoulders I stand on. And that’s my mother — Shyamala Gopalan Harris.”
Speaking about how Shyamala Gopalan came to the U.S. from India for higher studies, and how she met her husband, Donald Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica, Harris said her parents fell in love “in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
It was her mother who instilled in her a passion for public service, Harris said, adding that she “taught me that service to others gives life purpose and meaning.” Wishing that her mom was with her during the historic moment, Harris said: “I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman, all of five feet tall, who gave birth to me. On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now and speaking these words: I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America.”
The rest is history.
Harris continued, outlining her vision for a more inclusive America, “no matter what we look like, no matter where we come from or who we love.”
Introducing Harris, prior to her speech, her sister Maya Harris, her niece Meena Harris and her step daughter Ella Emhoff, painted a picture of a sister, aunty and “Momala,” who is a protective elder sister, a doting aunt and a friendly stepmom, who enjoys cooking elaborate Sunday meals.
The third night of the DNC, which culminated in Harris’s nomination and her powerful speech, was dedicated to celebrating women in politics. Several prominent women in the Democratic party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as well as Hillary Clinton heaped praises on both Joe Biden and Harris.
Former President Barack Obama spoke highly of Harris as well. “And in my friend Kamala Harris, (Biden)’s chosen an ideal partner who is more than prepared for the job, someone who knows what it’s like to overcome barriers and who has made a career fighting to help others live out their own American dream.” Obama said. “Along with the experience needed to get things done, Joe and Kamala have concrete policies that will turn their vision of a better, fairer, stronger country into a reality.”
A Reflection of Their Own Journey
Harris’s speech resonated with Indian Americans, many of whom could see their own families’ immigrant struggles as Harris recounted her mother’s early days in the U.S.. “I can’t begin to explain to you what it meant to see someone who shares our heritage up on that stage tonight, accepting the nomination for the second highest office in the country,” Shivanthi Sathanandan, a DNC Delegate for Biden from Minnesota, said. “When Kamala Harris talked about her mother’s struggles, I thought of my parents’ own immigrant experience,” she said.
“This was the most complete picture that Kamala Harris has given yet of her multicultural background and ‘families’ that comprise not only her DNA but also the neighbor who raised her when her mom was away,” said, Varun Nikore, president of the AAPI Victory Fund. “I could not help but feel great pride and emotion seeing someone who shares my background accept the nomination for Vice President of the United States.”
Similarly, for Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, watching Harris accept her nomination was touching and emotional. “Honestly, I never thought I would see it in my lifetime, a proud woman of color with heritage like mine standing on the stage to accept the nomination of a major party to be the vice president of the United States,” he said.
“Kamala Harris’s nomination for vice president makes me, as a South Asian woman, feel mainstream in America, 20 years after I immigrated here,” said Aditi Pal Karandikar, a core member of the national team of They See Blue, which aims to mobilize and engage Americans of South Asian origin in the democratic process to help Democrats win federal, state, and local races. “I feel our community is seen and she is a powerful role model for women and girls of color everywhere especially immigrants to see their potential in America.”
Parag V. Mehta, senior vice president at Mastercard and Board Chair at New American Leaders, in a Facebook post wrote: “This is surreal. Watching Kamala Harris with my five-foot Indian mom who came here when she was 25 years old.”
“It was an incredibly emotional experience to listen to Kamala Harris describe her immigrant roots, her mother,” said Suraj Patel, an attorney, activist, and professor of business ethics at NYU. “I’m beyond proud tonight.”
Reshma Patel, a member of the Manhattan Community Board 6, believes that Harris “touched cords in so many of us,” whether it’s “Indians and other immigrants with the story of her parents,” or “anyone who has lost a loved one,” or “anyone raised by a hardworking single mom,” or “anyone who was at a historically Black college or part of a Black sorority/fraternity.”
Some like Ishani Peddi saw a reflection of herself in Harris and her upbringing. Peddi is a senior at Starr’s Mill High School in Peachtree City, Georgia. “As I listened to Senator Harris speak, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between her story and mine,” she said. Raised by a single mother, Peddi said her doctor mother instilled in her “the value of education, public service, and the importance of being strong as a woman of color.” Peddi also saw a vision of her future. “I aspire to run for president in the future and Kamala Harris is paving the way for young Indian American women like me.”
While Harris’s speech echoed with Indian Americans, it was the word Chitthi — the Tamil word for mother’s younger sister, or father’s younger brother’s wife — that sent Indian Americans into a tizzy.
“Family is my husband Doug, who I met on a blind date set up by my best friend,” she said. “Family is our beautiful children, Cole and Ella, who as you just heard, call me Momala. Family is my sister. Family is my best friend, my nieces and my godchildren,” she said. “Family is my uncles, my aunts, my chitthis.”
“When she said a single word, ‘Chitthi,” I inexplicably burst into tears, never imagining that I would hear a candidate for the second highest office in our country speak in our shared mother tongue,” Sathanandan said. “Tonight, in our vice presidential nominee, I saw myself, I saw my daughter, I saw my daughter’s daughters.”
“I literally have tears in my eyes,” Padma Lakshmi tweeted. “@KamalaHarris just said ‘chitthis,’ which means auntie. My heart is so full right now.”
A Community Energized and Hopeful
Harris’s candidacy has excited, energized and encouraged a majority of Indian Americans. “There was a future in this speech for a better day and solely focusing as an American, I feel she gave me hope for the future for my grandchildren,” Narasimhan said. “And that’s what I care about and I believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris care about.”
Young Indian American political activists like Neha Dewan and Bianca Shah feel hopeful with a Biden-Harris ticket. “When Kamala Harris said that we need to think about what we will say to our kids and grandkids when they ask us about this time in history — it resonated with me,” Shah, a first-time delegate from Maryland, said. “I am proud that I will be able to say I protested racial injustice outside with a mask, that I cast a vote as a Delegate to a virtual Democratic National Convention, and most of all, that I contributed to getting the current administration out and get Biden in, along with an experienced, Black and Indian American woman as vice president.”
Dewan, national director of South Asians for Biden said Harris’s speech made her “excited, energized, and hopeful after a very long time. Her speech was just electrifying and I felt so emotional while she spoke about her Indian heritage and how her Indian, immigrant mother would never have imagined that her daughter that she just gave birth to would one day be accepting the vice president nomination,” she said. “I felt her warmth when she smiled.”
All across the country, the community is mobilizing to support the Democratic ticket. “California and Indian immigrants have a spring in their step, hope, optimism and pride for their deserving daughter,” said Alka Sabherwal, a political activist from Danville, California. “Her story is our story and will one day inspire a young Indian girl to say I can do whatever I want, be whatever I chose to be in America.”
In New York, chef Geetika Khanna felt “instantly engaged” after listening to Harris. “Her speech didn’t make me feel like the ‘other’ as the current presidency has often made me feel. After four years of chaos, Ms. Harris and the other speaker’s tonight made me feel like I belong. Like everyone belongs. I think the country is craving for leaders who feel the weight and responsibilities of their positions — who have awareness of the history of this country. And have a vision to understand our diversity, and need to change what hasn’t been working for decades.”
Pal Karandikar too is “very inspired and enthused” for Biden-Harris. “As Kamala said, let’s stay on the right side of history when our grandkids ask us about these times — not just what we felt but also what we did.”
Sathanandan is confident that this moment in time will echo through generations. “This moment in time means so much to black and brown women and girls across our country. It is barrier shattering. It is awe-inspiring. It gives me hope for our future. It gives me a fire in my belly to fight like my life depends on it for the next 75 days. For the children. For all of us. Let’s do this.”
Analyzing Harris’ Speech
Although Harris had a tough act to follow, as she spoke after Obama, Sabherwal said she “lived up to expectations.” Nikore agrees. “Kamala Harris has shown that she rivals any great orator, including Barack Obama, and was very relatable,” he says.
However, Sabherwal observed that Harris “was different from the feisty warrior we’ve seen in the past,” Instead Harris was “gentle in talking about her mother Shyamala, her life as a biracial daughter of immigrants.” Agreeing that Harris appeared to be “much softer than she usually is,” Patel said, “she didn’t come out fighting, instead, she came out exemplifying how we go high when they go low.”
For Raju Rajagopal of Hindus for Human Rights, said Harris speech was “safe and uninspiring.” He said it was t was “more of a personal story and a ‘Joe and I will…’ theme — pledging her support for Biden, rather than an independent statement of her own beliefs and what she will do for the country as the vice president,” he said. “Perhaps this is what a VP nominee is expected to do.”
Rajagopal said more than the speech, what stuck him “was the story of her 5ft tall mom and her determination to bring them up in Black culture, while at the same time also making them proud of their Hindu roots.” He said he “could not help wondering, what that strong woman of conviction would have thought of some of our Hindu NRIs, who have thrown in their lot with Modi/Shah’s disdain for multi-religious, multi-ethnic pluralism, as India drifts towards authoritarian rule. (Even as they fully take advantage of America’s welcome to immigrants and minorities.)”
According to Middlesex County Freeholder Shanti Narra, Harris “introduced herself to the country very effectively, in a very real, poignant and personal manner.” Adding that she came across as intelligent and erudite in her speech, Narra said, “what I got from her tonight is less her fierceness (which she is famous for) but her connectedness to the American experience. She represents so very many of us. A woman, a woman of color, the child of immigrants. Hearing her talk about her roots and family connections made her so very relatable,” she said.
“Her lines about valuing ‘the worth of every person’ and ‘fighting for the America that is possible’ to me sum up the fundamental difference in the two tickets. The Biden/Harris ticket is focused on serving this country — everyone in this country.”
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.