As an Indian American, I was delighted to vote for Kamala Harris. My children call some of their aunts chittis. When Harris used that term in her speech accepting her nomination as the Democratic candidate for the vice presidency, my daughter looked wide-eyed. It was a rare moment of representation at the highest levels of government.
Now, as the world rushes to help India while it buckles under a catastrophic second wave of Covid, I see the limits of representation. The vice president’s silence hurts.
There are only about three million Indian Americans in the US, less than one percent of the total population. That’s a number too small to matter in elections. Harris campaigned primarily as a Black woman but there were moments when she consciously invoked her Indian heritage. Some moments — like when she spoke about her mother being often overlooked because she was a brown woman with a heavy accent — resonated with wider audiences. Others, such as the foray into dosa-making with fellow Indian American Mindy Kaling, were clearly intentionally targeted at Indian Americans.
Harris was a source of pride for many Indian Americans like me. I had worried about immigrating to a country where my children would be minorities. Harris’s election was a source of wonder and joy.
The Biden administration positioned the vice president as a key factor in its relationship with India. Two days after the inauguration, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described the vice president’s inauguration as a historic moment that would further cement the relationship between the United States and India.
Yet, as India’s healthcare system began to collapse, Harris and the Biden administration were conspicuously slow to respond. The UK was among the first to send help; France, Russia and Saudi Arabia were among other countries that swiftly sent messages of sympathy and aid. At that point, a number of prominent Indian Americans began publicly lobbying the Biden administration to step in.
Brown University’s dean of the School of Public Health Ashish K. Jha, describing the situation in India as “horrendous”, pleaded, “Can we please give or lend [vaccines] to India? Like maybe now?” in a tweet that went viral on April 22. Johns Hopkins Biosecurity Fellow Krutika Kuppalli, who teamed up with fellow physicians to create a widely circulated infographic with tips on caring for Covid patients at home, urged, “We have reached a point where supply outpaces demand and we have excess doses of all vaccines. It is in the world’s interests to help India.”
The chorus of voices grew each day, including former US Attorney Preet Bharara, Pulitzer Prize winner and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and former Obama administration official Nisha Biswal.
For an administration which campaigned on empathy and global responsibility, the first US response was surprisingly cold. “We have special responsibility to the American people,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on April 22, when asked about relaxing rules on sending raw materials to India.
The vice president’s absence was noticed. “Chittis need help!” tweeted Mayo Clinic infectious diseases physician Priya Sampathkumar. “Et tu, Kamala Harris?” asked Curai Health founder Neal Khosla. “Stunning how Kamala Harris has gone silent on the situation in India,” wrote OnDeck program director Sar Haribhakti.
Harris made her first remarks on the crisis on April 25, after the US announced that it would send help. “As we provide resources, we pray for the people of India,” she said in a brief statement.
As an American vice president, Harris has no special obligation to empathize with another country. Identities, however, are not things that can be donned or discarded at will. By talking extensively about her Indian American roots, Harris and the White House positioned the vice president as having a special connection to India. That made her absence in the conversation particularly noticeable. For Indian Americans, reeling under the guilt and sadness of being unable to help relatives as tragedy struck in India, that perceived lack of empathy cut deep.
Although Harris also still has family in India, her Indian heritage is just a small part of who she is. She represents a myriad of identities as an American, a woman, a Black person, an Asian person, a biracial person, the daughter of immigrants, the wife of a Jewish man and a stepmother.
So why did I expect so much more when this latest crisis began to unfold in my home country? I suppose, like many other Americans, I looked at Harris and saw what I wanted to see. The problem is that reflections are never quite accurate.