News · Politics

Broadening Realities: Reading Kamala Harris’
Black and Indian Identity Through Image 

Image is a means by which dominant narratives can be questioned, confronted, and shifted. As the internet continues to establish itself as a space for public dialogue and images are adapted to enhance these conversations, it is important to track how image is being used today as well as the possibilities of the image in reframing history. On August 11th, Kamala Harris was nominated to be Joe Biden’s running mate for the United States 2020 presidential election. Harris, whose father is Jamaican and whose mother is Tamil Indian, accepted her nomination on August 19th. Currently, Harris stands to make history as both the first Black woman and the first Indian-American woman Vice President in the United States of America. While Harris’ identity as a Black woman has been known for some time, many have only recently become aware of Harris’ Indian heritage. Since her nomination, many have taken to social media and various publication sites to share images of Harris and her family that highlight her as a multiracial, Indian-American, and Black-American woman. This abundance of imagery throughout the past few weeks not only brings presidential representation to the approximately 3 million Indian-Americans residing in the United States, it is also a powerful reflection of a multi-racial and diverse nation through image. The circulation of these images both recognizes the many communities within our world and inspires important conversations that expand our understanding of how identity is created and defined. 

The circulation of images of a Black and Indian-American political representative informs us of the variety of experience within the Indian community and how we can use image to bring visibility to those underrepresented within the community. Nirupama Menon Rao, author and former Foreign Secretary of India, shares an image of Harris dressed in a pink sari sitting on a couch with members of her family. Nirupama’s caption discusses Harris and her sister’s visit to Chennai to see their grandparents. In sharing images of Harris with her family, we understand how image can be used to distinguish one’s place within a community. Furthermore, as Nirupama uses image to begin a conversation about the specifics of Harris’ family life, we can also recognize image as a tool to challenge popular ideas about what the Indian family looks like and desensationalize the experiences of multiracial people coming from two communities of color. Likewise, individuals of Black and Indian descent have established their presence on the mobile application Tik Tok, using moving image to discuss a number of topics from family life, to the stress of applying for jobs, to celebrating their lineage. Much like the images of Harris’ early home life being circulated, image here works to assert the presence of Black biracial Indians within the Indian community. By sharing images of the family, home, personal interests, or the self, the experiences of people of Black and Indian descent are normalized. In addition, the internet-wide distribution of images detailing their lives provides people of Black and Indian descent, politicians or otherwise, the opportunity to collectively document their experiences on the internet, create a virtual archive for their community, and play an active role in writing their own history.

Through photos of Kamala Harris as a multiracial, Indian-American, and Black-American woman, we recognize image as a tool to challenge popular ideas about what the Indian family looks like and desensationalize the experiences of multiracial people coming from two communities of color.

Beyond showing us the power of images in uplifting communities, the distribution of images of Harris and her family life also reveal to us the ways in which the visual can be used to discredit one’s heritage. Shortly after Harris’ nomination, Gunnery Sergeant posted a now deleted photo of Harris’ aunt, Dr. Sarala Gopalan, with the hashtag “#KamalaHarrisAintBlack” on Twitter. Not unlike the interrogations of former President Obama’s heritage, the use of image in this way highlights both the anti blackness faced by Black and multiracial people today, as well as how image, when used to question someone’s identity, also works to cast doubt on the trustworthiness and reliability of the person in question. Equally, however, it teaches us that one’s family, culture, place of origin or bloodline cannot be determined by a single image. On Tik Tok, user youvaaaani  discusses how, as a person of Black and Indian descent, she receives doubt from others about her multiracial identity because of her physical appearance. Despite the fact that the visual aspects of their lives inform a small part of who they are as individuals, in the case of both Harris and Tik Tok user youvaaaani, we understand how image, family or individual, is used against people of Black and Indian descent—either as a tool for negation, with one identity being used to disprove the other, or to reinforce other’s limited understandings of race by creating narrow definitions of what one’s identity can and can’t be. The spread of images representing Harris as a multiracial Black-American and Indian-American woman disrupts the narrative that Black people can’t exist in Indian communities and Indian people can’t exist in Black communities. In addition to challenging generalizations about the experiences of Black and Indian people, the distribution of these images across the internet also reveals how we can use image to create alternative methods of self-identification. 

Following the public’s use of image to discuss Harris’ identity, some are pushing to redefine understandings of identity not only in terms of ancestry, but in terms of policy and practice. In a Twitter post, Palki Sharma questions Harris’ identity and suggests that any claims made by Harris to her Indian heritage are merely a means to establish a sturdy base of Indian-American voters come November. She notes that Harris should be viewed as an American, rather than Indian, because of her “stand on Kashmir & India,” referencing Harris’ criticisms of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his repeal of Article 370. In stating Harris’ response to Modi as a reason to challenge her status as a member of the Indian community, we understand that for some, identity is defined by the degree of one’s patriotism. Blood ties are removed as a factor in determining identity; one’s allegiance to the nation’s government overshadowing the merit of their family history. In other cases, individual members of both the Indian community and the Black community alike have denied Harris’ place within their communities because she has publicly identified with both groups in the past. Although limited in the assumption that there is one way to be Black or one way to be Indian, these perspectives highlight how identity can be measured by both the media coverage one receives and how one acknowledges their identity to the public. They also remind us of the role that marketing strategists play in how identity is accessed by the public, as well as the ways in which political identities are packaged and promoted when attempting to reach a given audience. Author Roxanne Gay offers another perspective in this conversation, discussing the consequences of defining identity solely in terms of race. Her tweet reads: 

“You can spend the next 3 months debating Harris’s blackness OR you could spend that time discussing her policy stances, where she needs to be pushed left, what she has to account for from her time as a prosecutor, and what the best version of her vice presidency might look like.”

Our understanding of others, her response proves, should not only be determined by one’s parents, place of origin, or appearance, but should also be measured by what one has done and what one can do. While ancestry is important in showing us where someone comes from, it is legacy that teaches us who someone becomes and what they choose to leave behind. 

It would be impossible to deny the significance of representation in how we navigate identity, as well as its impact on underrepresented communities. Indian, Jamaican, Black, and Indian women alike have expressed the importance of Harris’ representation and the visibility they experience because of it. Even so, if we are to acknowledge the benefits of representation, we must also recognize its limits. When engaged properly, representation has the power to make us see: what is, what can be, and what can be done better. However, this is rarely the case. Representation has inaccurately and purposefully been misused as a quick-fix by government bodies, companies, organizations, and institutions to distract from the fact that their attempts to address human rights issues spanning across race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability are, at best, hollow. These abuses of representation have caused many to forget that representation is a tool for awareness. And, while representation can inspire people to action, it should never be confused with action itself. We must understand that lasting change will never truly be made without consistent efforts to fight the structures affecting marginalized communities today. Only once we accept this can we begin to differentiate how we make communities feel seen and recognized from how we make communities feel fed, nourished, and sustained. 

 

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  • Jo Shafer October 29, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Note to Senator Harris: So that’s how to chop an onion into little squares! I’ve been doing it wrong for 50 years. Now, I know. All in all, this was a delightful video illustrating how alike we women are in our everyday lives. Thank you!

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