By: Shara Santan
On November 7, 2020, the world watched the first-ever female, Black and Tamil Vice President-elect of the United States of America, Kamala Devi Harris, give her victory speech. Yes, I said Tamil and not Asian, South Asian or Indian. And here’s why.
First and foremost, because Kamala Harris is Tamil. So, why not?
But besides that not-so-obvious fact, let me give you a breakdown of why it is important to distinctly acknowledge her Tamil identity that is seldom mentioned in mainstream media.
I’ll start with the story of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Kamala Harris’ mother. Shyamala Harris is a Tamil woman. For those who may not know, Tamils are a part of an ethnolinguistic group from South Asia, more precisely South India and Sri Lanka. Today, the Tamil diaspora makes up one of the largest immigrant populations in North America because of one renowned promise– the land of possibilities.
Shyamala Harris left Tamil Nadu, India at the age of 19 and moved to America where she eventually, as a single parent, raised two daughters to be confident warriors in a country that systematically devalues their Black identity. Like Shyamala Harris, my mother travelled a similar path and moved to Canada to flee civil unrest and genocide in Sri Lanka. As a single parent, she, too, raised me and my siblings to live fiercely despite our “unfavorable” Tamil identity. Such experiences of Tamil women preparing for a battle (literally and figuratively) is all too common in the Tamil community.
You see, ingrained colonial standards of colorism in South Asia makes India one of the most anti-Black and anti-Tamil countries in the world. Anti-Blackness fuels the notion that Tamil people are not good enough. “Dark skin” and “nappy hair” makes us Tamil women subject to constant experiences of “othering” in South Asia. As people with darker skin, discrimination based on colorism follows us from our homeland and exposes us to micro and macro-aggressions in South Asian communities– within and beyond North America.
Distinctly acknowledging Kamala Harris’ Tamil identity is important because it steers us in the right direction, as we continue our commitment to combating anti-Blackness worldwide. While we are proud to be “united” by race, we recognize that there are dangers in using “South Asians” to broadly identify us. Our unique, “lesser than” experiences make us far removed from our South Asian counterparts. In this way, generalized identifiers can lead to continuously dismissing our historically oppressive reality, threatening the erasure of our identity, and further aggravating our unhealed wounds.
For Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Black and Tamil woman, this historic victory was no easy feat. Black women are the most unprotected demographic in America. Recognizing their unmatched experiences, I, too, stand in solidarity with Black women and hold pride in knowing that the next Vice President is a proud Black woman.
Being a Tamil woman, this historic moment is an emotional experience for me. It is reassuring to witness another Tamil woman in one of the highest rankings, knowing all the barriers she would have faced her whole life. Even something as simple as listening to Kamala Harris represent her Tamil roots by acknowledging her “chithis” (aunties in Tamil) on primetime stage, meant more than just a shoutout. It meant that she is also one of us– a proud Tamil woman.
While we live in a world where the color of your skin and the texture of your hair still dictates the outcomes of your existence, this month sparked a different kind of hope. The world of possibilities became that much more real for me and others like me. This hopeful outlook proves that representation matters because representation is power.
Like Shyamala Harris committed to over 50 years ago, we all have a responsibility to have critical conversations about anti-Blackness beginning with those in our own home. Because when we do, look what happens. We turn dreamy possibilities into concrete opportunities. And now, we have Kamala Harris– a ground-breaking woman of many firsts.
I recognize the nuances of Kamala Harris’ victory related to her professional trajectory (and that’s a conversation for another day). As the first Madam Vice President, Kamala Harris has the chance to write, rewrite and seal a narrative that will change the course for generations of female leaders to come. So, this moment is more than a political ticket. It’s about winning our deserved place in this world. Though late, we will take it.
Because a vulnerable, yet resilient, Black and Tamil woman is the kind of power we need to heal right now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shara Santan is a proud Tamil-Canadian woman and Columbia University graduate student. As a Senior Brand Strategist at DRK Beauty, she is spearheading our leading mental health initiative dedicated to giving away free therapy to womxn of color impacted by COVID-19 and racial injustice. With a passion for social justice and community-building, her mission is to improve outcomes for vulnerable communities and optimize generational healing. In the recent past, Shara led and introduced a ground-breaking gender-inclusive government ID policy (first of its kind in North America) after completing her Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration at Ryerson University and Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo– both acquired in Ontario, Canada.