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What Kamala Harris’ VP nomination means to us

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America has been given a gift in Kamala Harris.

We do not mean to imply that she is a savior or a saint. Or that she, with her formidable intelligence and talent, will leave our country breathless and hungry for more (though we expect she will).

No, what we mean is that Sen. Harris, through her intersectional identity, her Jamaican ancestry and Indian heritage, her HBCU bona fides, and her experience in criminal justice, is a living embodiment of the American experience. And in her, we finally have a way of talking about the America of Black and Brown folk; the folks descended from enslaved people and the folks descended from immigrants.

The two of us represent those identities. Johnnetta Betsch Cole became the first African American President of Spelman College, a Historically Black college in 1987. She grew up in the Jim Crow South as the descendant of enslaved African people and the great-granddaughter of Florida’s first Black millionaire. She’s been a lifelong activist for women’s rights and civil rights. She has lived to see an African American man serve as President of the United States and now, a Black woman as the presumptive Vice President nominee of a major political party.

Minal Bopaiah is the daughter of two Indian immigrants, both of whom are retired physicians. When she was a teenager in the 1990s, a family friend would insist she and her brother were American simply because they were born here. Minal was too young to verbalize the gap between fact and feeling like you belonged, but her brother quipped, “The President of the United States is not thinking about people like me when he thinks about Americans.” Minal never imagined she would live to see the day when an Indian American woman would be on a Presidential ticket. It is sweeter for this lifelong progressive that the ticket falls to the left than to the right.

The two of us, Dr. Cole and Ms. Bopaiah, have been collaborating on a book for three years and have formed a deep enough bond that we now refer to each other in kinship terms — Auntie J and Niecey. And so, it was especially meaningful and poignant to call each other recently to celebrate a candidate that we could both identify with racially.

As women, we can speak about our experience from a gender lens, which is important. But as women of color, we also have a mighty lot to say about our experience from a racial lens. So often, women of color have had to fight and prove that we are twice as good to get half as far. Senator Harris gets this.

But we also know that Brown and Black people can have very different experiences in our country. One thing to have your ancestors enslaved and brought here against their will, as Dr. Cole’s were (or in Senator Harris’ case, brought to Jamaica). It is quite another to have parents who arrived with advanced education, thanks to the socialized education system of another country, as Ms. Bopaiah’s did and Senator Harris’ mother did.

But Kamala Harris offers even more intersectionality of experience. As the granddaughter of Tamilian Brahmins, she is familiar with being a part of the elite in the Indian diaspora. At the same time, simultaneously, as a Black American, she knows the experience of marginalization by race, the United States’ version of caste, as Isabel Wilkerson, so eloquently elucidates in her new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

To know privilege and marginalization is a universal experience, though the proportions may vary. Unfortunately, knowing victimization does not make one an instant ally to all other marginalized identities.

We are both aware of the anti-Blackness that can pervade the Indian diaspora. We are also both aware of the insularism that can occur in Black culture. We are aware of the anti-Muslim sentiment among some Hindus and the opposition to LGBTQ+ rights by some Black Americans. And as women with family ties to law enforcement (Ms. Bopaiah’s husband was a police officer many years ago and Dr. Cole’s youngest son is currently a police sergeant), we both understand the tension and pragmatism required for reforming America’s criminal justice system so that it no longer breeds a culture of brutality against Black and Brown bodies.

What our sister Sen. Harris does for our country is to give us an embodiment of unity in diversity. So many of the cultures and experiences she represents have been both victimized and victimizer. But she, with all her embodied complexity, represents the opportunity to create a system that works for all of us. She is the best of what our country can be when we choose not to ignore or minimize our differences, but to harmonize them. She is a song from the American songbook — a Hip Hop remix of the Star-Spangled Banner and Lift Every Voice and Sing dropped over a bhangra beat — and so many of us now have the joy of hearing our hymns for justice echoing from a national stage.

We would all do well to listen. The ancestors are singing through Kamala Harris, calling us all home to our unified, diverse selves. Like her, we can embrace our complexity with vigor and verve, and fearlessly push our country forward with music in our souls.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D. is the President and Chair of the National Council of Negro Women and President Emerita of Spelman College and Bennett College. Minal Bopaiah is a professional writer and consultant.
Tags African-American women in politics Alpha Kappa Alpha Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Kamala Harris Spelman College

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