Although she couldn’t vote in the presidential election, it was important for Ashni Walia, math and information systems junior, to see Kamala Harris elected vice president as an Indian American woman. Her win signals an unprecedented form of representation.
Walia was disappointed when Harris originally dropped out of the presidential race in December, but she was glad when Biden selected her as his running mate. When they won, she couldn’t believe that an Indian woman was set to take the second most powerful position in the U.S.
Biden served as a Delaware senator before being elected vice president in 2008 alongside former President Barack Obama. Senator Kamala Harris will be the first woman, first Black woman, first South Asian American woman and first person of color to become vice president.
Harris will not only be the first woman to serve as vice president, but also the first Black vice president and the first Indian American vice president.
For Walia, Harris’ win is about what she represents.
“Just having her face on there — having her name on there — is so important for brown girls growing up in America right now,” she said. “It’s so empowering for them to be able to see someone who looks like them.”
Indian Americans are often overlooked by other racial groups, psychology sophomore Hannah Selvarathinam said. Even when people talk about minorities in the media, Indian Americans are rarely mentioned. It feels like they aren’t heard, she said.
Now that there’s an Indian woman as vice president-elect, Indian American voices have a greater chance of being heard, and Indian Americans can finally feel a sense of belonging.
“Even though we are small, we matter,” Selvarathinam said.
With Harris as vice president, Indian immigrants can see that their children will have opportunities in the U.S. that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Political affiliations aside, many Indian Americans are enthusiastic about Harris’ win, said Narendra Subramanian, political science professor at McGill University.
Minorities and people of color especially have had less-than-proportionate representation in American politics, Subramanian said. While this is most true for Black people, it is also true of other groups like Indian Americans.
More than 20 million Asian Americans live in the U.S., and Indian Americans account for 19% of that number, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis. This equals less than 2% of the U.S. population. In that regard, it makes sense that they haven’t received equal representation, Subramanian said.
However, this is changing now. There are many more Indians being born in the U.S. than immigrating. As this happens, more and more Indians are likely to take an interest in political roles.
“They just want to feel more a part of public life in the United States,” he said.
Walia said she loves seeing a first-generation immigrant like herself win the election. Seeing that “immigrant hustle” feeds into the American dream.
Selvarathinam, a first-generation Indian immigrant, said she never had a role model to look up to while growing up.
“Everyone on TV was someone who quite frankly had a different skin color,” she said.
Now thousands of people of color, especially Indian Americans, will be able to see someone who looks like them as vice president.
“I don’t have to be afraid when I walk into a room and see no one else looks like me,” she said. “You have a chance to pave the way and become something else.”
In a country full of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, it’s important to have people who can represent those differences, Selvarathinam said.
One of those differences is their names.
Having an Indian woman whose name is often mispronounced in office speaks to the struggle that all South Asians go through, Walia said. Even a seemingly small thing like that is a form of representation that shows Indian people they’re all in this together.
Harris’ dual identity as a Black and Indian woman will help with the oppression of both communities, she said.
Racism runs deep in Indian communities, Walia said, especially toward Black people. Harris’ dual heritage could be a step toward greater acceptance.
“She truly does embody the idea that regardless of your gender or color, you can achieve your goals in this country,” she said. “That’s breaking normalities for lots of Indian American girls out there.”
Harris’ win gives her hope for women, especially Indian American women, who face a strong patriarchy that places men in charge and considers them superior to women. Having a female vice president will help level the playing field.
Women constantly struggle for equality in the U.S., Selvarathinam said. Having a woman hold more power than every man in America but one shows women across the country that their voices matter.
When Harris stood up to Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate and repeatedly told him “I’m speaking,” she illustrated the struggle every woman faces. Whether at home or in the workplace, women are often silenced or spoken over.
Harris took a stand for all women by holding her ground, Selvarathinam said. When a woman speaks, she must be heard.
“No matter your gender, if you speak, your voice has to be heard,” she said. “Seeing Kamala Harris really put her foot down shows how we must act in these situations.”
Selvarathinam hopes that young girls of color become inspired to take on new and challenging roles without fear of men putting them down.
The fact that Harris is a woman is a bigger change for America than for other industrialized countries, including the majority of South Asian countries. Women have had significant political leadership roles in many countries.
“The U.S. is quite backward in that regard,” Subramanian said.
For example, India has seen women in power since 1966. Indira Gandhi was the prime minister from 1966 to 1977.
A few years earlier, Sri Lanka also elected a woman as prime minister in 1960. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter were both political leaders for a time.
Bangladesh and Pakistan have also elected women as prime ministers.
However, most of these women were either the widows or daughters of prominent male leaders. Their initial rise to power resulted from their connections to male family members, Subramanian said.
Once in power, they developed their own political personalities and became respected in their own rights.
While Walia is upset that Harris had to run with a white man to win the election, she believes Harris would have won the presidency in a more ideal world.
“We have so much further to go,” Walia said. “This is an achievement, and we should be celebrating today, but tomorrow there is so much work to be done.”
Harris didn’t receive as much support from the Indian community as she should have, Walia said. Many of her family members still voted for Trump despite having an Indian woman on the ballot.
It boils down to misogyny within the Indian community, she said.
Women in India often endure worse treatment at a basic societal level, Subramanian said.
Things like life expectancy, education and income are significantly lower for women than men, he said. It matters more because there’s more poverty in India as well.
“The absolute level that women are at is much lower in India than in the United States,” he said.
Although Harris lacks a background in promoting the rights of historically underprivileged groups and has a mixed record with cracking down on crime and minority men, her win is still historic and represents change, Subramanian said.
Harris’ win is a win for all Indian Americans.
“Even though people might not be the happiest with the candidates, we all agree that this is something monumental,” Selvarathinam said.