Kamala Harris and a history of trying to define ‘Asian American’
The identity of Sen. Kamala Harris, who will debate Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, is part of a long discussion of who gets to be considered Asian American and who is too often left out of the group.
Harris’ Asian American ethnic background — she is multiracial — hasn’t always been recognized by the American public. When Joe Biden announced Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate in August, The New York Times and the Associated Press noted that Harris would be the first Black woman to be on a major party presidential ticket in social media posts, but left out the possibility that she could be the first Asian American vice president in the nation’s history. Similarly, a BuzzFeed article published on Tuesday examines how Harris will become the first Black woman at a vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, but makes no single mention of her Indian descent or Asian American identity.
The failure of many to acknowledge Harris’ Asian American identity has left many South Asian American women feeling that their heritage isn’t being properly recognized. But as research points out, Asian America itself hasn’t always been inclusive of those of South Asian descent.
Scholars argue that by disregarding more inclusivity in the Asian American community, people seek to restrict the potential strength and unity in the group.
The South Asian American population is one of the fastest-growing segments within Asian America, according to AAPI Data. However, about 15 percent of Asian Americans believe Indians are less likely to be Asian American. When asked about Pakistanis, 27 percent shared that belief, as well. But when looking at Koreans and Filipinos, about 6 percent hold that view.
The exclusion of South Asians in the Asian American community is further apparent when looking at attitudes among non-Asians. About 42 percent of whites, 35 percent of Latinx people and 34 percent of Black Americans don’t identify Indians as Asian, with even higher percentages recorded when they are asked about Pakistanis.
Perhaps one of the more glaring examples of exclusivity from the Asian American label is the disparity between how Harris and fellow former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang were seen in the public’s eye. Some have erroneously referred to Yang as the “first Asian American candidate,” when not only have others, like former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who’s of Indian descent, have run in the past, but Harris herself was also in the same candidate class.
In Harris’ case, Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, acknowledged that Harris hasn’t always been seen as Asian American in part because of how she has presented herself throughout the election cycle. She emphasized her experience as a young Black girl who integrated into a majority-white class, in the tradition of many other Black children at the time, Dhingra said. In contrast, Yang leaned into aspects of the “model minority” stereotype, joking on the debate stage that “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” However, Dhingra said, that the overall hesitance to always include South Asians as part of the larger Asian American identity played into how many people framed Harris’ experiences.
Much of the messiness of Asian America as a label stretches back centuries, with the early beginnings of the category lying in part in a legal framework that ostracized those of Asian descent from citizenship and a place in America, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside.
Among the earliest legislation to codify naturalized citizenship was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years, keeping other populations of color ineligible for citizenship. After the Civil War, citizenship was expanded to “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent”; however; those of Asian descent remained ineligible.
The concept was further emphasized by the establishment in 1917 of an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which demarcated areas of Asia as those from which immigrants weren’t allowed admission into the U.S. A few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrants of Japanese descent were excluded from naturalization, and soon after, the courts declared the same for Indian immigrants, largely due to their non-whiteness.
“It was exclusion from whiteness,” Ramakrishnan said. “What it meant to be Asian was defined over time historically through laws on Asian exclusion on immigration and then also Asian exclusion from citizenship.”
Ellen Wu, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University, said the late 1960s marked a watershed moment for activists who made the conscious decision to take on the “Asian American” label as a statement. They aimed to signal their shared histories of racism, as well as imperial domination. Dhingra emphasized that the movement was led by U.S.-born East Asian Americans who fought to distance themselves from the word “Oriental.”
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