The erasure of Kamala Harris's Asian heritage: It's time to talk about colorism and anti-Black racism within the Asian American diaspora

Kamala Harris

I am an Asian American who lives in one of the few Asian-majority Congressional districts in the country, and I am deeply, deeply ashamed of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus's response to President-elect Biden's rollout of cabinet and high-level White House officials. Their response, led by Rep. Judy Chu from my home state of California, fails a great deal of Asian Americans. I must speak up.

Although the initial statement from CAPAC congratulating the President-elect and the Vice President-elect on their victory claimed Kamala Harris as "our very own," their actions and statements since have made that initial pride appear more obligatory than genuine.

Chu's full-court press included an appearance on Jonathan Capehart's inaugural The Sunday Show on MSNBC, along with representatives of multiple constituencies hoping to persuade President-elect Biden to further diversify what is already shaping up to be the most diverse administration in history. Rep. David Cicilline pushed Biden to make history again by appointing an openly gay member at the high levels of the administration, Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar said that a Latina woman should have a seat at the table, and Rep. Karen Bass emphasized her view that when Vice President-elect Harris's seat in the US Senate becomes vacant, Black women will lose any representation in the US Senate unless one is appointed to replace Harris.

But each of the guests made it a point to praise Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the job they have done in selecting members of the cabinet and high-level appointments to their incoming administration, except for Rep. Chu. Instead, she hammered Biden on not (yet) meeting her arbitrary benchmark of appointing "an AAPI to the Cabinet at the Secretary-level." Absent from her all-out push is any mention that the highest-ranking member of the President's cabinet, when Joe Biden takes office, will in fact be Vice President Kamala Harris.

Rep. Chu - as well as a statement from her caucus - gives the impression that Asian Americans would be getting some kind of 'demotion' in importance if Biden did not appoint a cabinet-level secretary of Asian descent. That impression is at once ridiculous, disingenuous, and lays bare a dire need for the Asian American community to examine the impressions we put out there about just who is allowed to represent us.

It is a ridiculous claim because first, if not having a cabinet-level secretary of Asian descent is a "demotion," then having an Asian American vice president must be considered a 'promotion' for the argument to have any intellectual heft. Even apart from the Vice President-elect, two appointees who are designees for Senate-confirmed, cabinet-ranked positions are of Asian descent: Biden's designee for Director of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, and the nominee for US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai. In addition, Joe Biden's nominee for one of the most positions most critical to pandemic response, that of Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is also Asian American.

Yet Rep. Chu is glossing over all of them in her singular quest to stick to an artificial benchmark of "cabinet-level secretary." That is not simply an oversight - it represents what I at least hope is a blind spot for Rep. Chu and APA Caucus: the consistent erasure of South Asian diaspora from the Asian American community, as well as rank colorism prevalent among many Asian Americans. The fact that Kamala Harris is a dark-skinned Asian American of South Asian descent makes her consistent erasure a representation of both.

40% of people in Asia live in one of the South Asian countries, and in the United States, 6.3 million Americans of South Asian descent comprise nearly one in three of the 21 million Asian Americans. Yet, as a South Asian American, I can tell you identifying as Asian American is not always the easiest thing to do. Say the word 'Asian' and Americans - including vast swaths of Asian Americans - assume an east Asian identity, such as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. As a result, my kind of Asians are often forced to emphasize that we are south Asians in our conversations about race, whether we like it or not. Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist at Cal Poly Pomona, explains that in modern America, the term 'Asian' is often misused to refer to certain physical features and skin tone than a continental heritage.

The south Asian diaspora faces many issues being recognized as Asian American, cultural as well as racial.

Most people - many Asians included - tend to think of Asian people as fair-skinned, with eyes shaped a certain way and certain other physical features. The images of Asian heritage in America tracks generally to the Great Wall, not the Taj Mahal. Traditional 'Asian (or even eastern) medicine' almost always invokes Chinese medicine, not the Ayurvedas. Search for 'Asian food' on your phone. Chances are the top results are saturated with Sushi and Chinese restaurants, rather than with cuisine from Myanmar, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka. Heck, even when people think of conflicts in Asia, the first thoughts are about the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the aggression of the Chinese military, or even the Japanese invasion of China decades ago. Rarely is the first imagery of Asian conflict that Americans think of having to do with the border dispute between nuclear-armed Pakistan and its nuclear neighbor India or the Sri Lankan civil war between Tamil Tigers and government forces that lasted for 26 years. 

The exclusion of people of south Asian descent from the broader Asian American identity is more than cultural. It's also racial.

Colorism within Asia is legendary. The extent to which fairer, whiter skin is prized in Asia can easily be felt by the dominance and sky-high sales of skin-whitening products in Asia. Fairer skin is determinative of beauty, wealth, social status, and hierarchies in many Asian societies in ways that could put the American south to shame. The story is much the same among Asian Americans, and the south Asian part of Asia, and specifically the Indian subcontinent, is no exception. For example, the speakers of my native language, Bengali (a north Indian language), while describing skin complexion, often use the word for 'dirty' when they mean 'dark'. Likewise, they often use the word for 'clean' when referring to fair complexion.

Within India, colorism creates a divide among people from north and south India. People from the north tend to be fairer skinned (though certainly not exclusively), and compared to them, people from south India tend to have a darker complexion.

It is partly because of cultural colorism that anti-Black racism also is a particular problem within the Asian American community. To be sure, Asian Americans throughout our diverse communities are taking the lead to fight the scourge of anti-Blackness within our respective subcultures, but for the time being, it remains very, very real within the Asian body politic in America. This reality manifests in aversion to having one's child date Black people, disrespect for Black people's intelligence, and the resistance to affirmative action.

The colorism - which to be absolutely sure is a crude form of racism - among the Asian American community has a double impact on Kamala Harris. Harris the child of a Black father, and her Asian heritage stems from her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a dark-complexioned daughter of south India. Kamala Harris, from a perspective of the conditions of her birth, is everything this unpleasant undercurrent of Asian American life considers a taboo: she is the result of a dark Asian woman (pretty low on the totem pole of colorism to begin with) having the audacity to defy anti-Black racism and marry a Black man.

In another age, Kamala Harris and her mother would be outcasts, and many Asians still feel this way.

Let us be clear about something. I am not claiming that Rep. Chu or the Congressional APA Caucus is promoting anti-Blackness and colorism among the Asian American community or using either to advocate for more representation in a Biden cabinet. I do not think that Judy Chu or anyone in the caucus holds expressly racist views, and further, the caucus has served a major role in Congress as an ally to oppose anti-Black racism and has spent its time dedicated to anti-racism.

But I am saying, with pain, that every time they push the Biden administration on representation, they should also acknowledge that the administration is already rich with Asian American talent, and especially in the Vice President herself. Not doing so risks feeding the already-prevalent impression that south Asian Americans and darker Asian Americans are just not as entitled to represent the Asian American community as others.

These are painful things for me to say. But I needed to speak up. Because if not me, then who? If not now, then when?