Like Kamala Harris, I’m the daughter of an Indian immigrant. We are the American story: Tanden

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Like Kamala Harris, I’m the daughter of an Indian immigrant. We are the American story: Tanden

opinion

Neera Tanden
Opinion contributor

Published 8:55 AM EDT Aug 14, 2020

To understand the Kamala Harris story, one has to understand the story of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan. Her story is quintessentially American. And as with so many great American stories, it didn’t start in this country. It started in India.

Shyamala was born in the city of Madras (now Chennai). She was passionate about an area of work considered path-breaking for women in the 1950s: scientific research. In 1958, Shyamala enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley to study nutrition and endocrinology. She had never set foot in the United States before.

She went on to become a pioneer in breast cancer research, making some groundbreaking advancements in the field, and served as a great supporter of Breast Cancer Action. She was also a tireless advocate for civil rights, perhaps in part because, as a single mother of two Black daughters, she knew the cost of discrimination.

Power and strength of US diversity 

Her two daughters have since blazed their own paths as lawyers, as civil rights advocates, and as leaders in this country. On Aug. 11, 2020, Shyamala’s older daughter — Sen. Kamala Harris — reached a historic milestone. She is the first South Asian American and the first Black woman to run as a major party’s vice presidential candidate. She will officially become the Democratic nominee  Wednesday at the party convention.

Sen. Harris’ extraordinary achievement is a testament to the power and strength of diversity in this country. For many people of color, her nomination has caused us to reflect on our own journeys. I have found myself doing the same.

My mother is also an Indian immigrant. She, too, became a single mother of two children. For a time she had to go on welfare and we were on food stamps, and lived in subsidized Section 8 Housing. But eventually, my mother got a job as a travel agent and then as a contracts administrator at Raytheon. She made sacrifices and gradually she climbed into the middle class, working hard and earning her own home.

And it didn’t come without its personal challenges, either. Harris has described how her mother was often “treated as though she were dumb because of her accent,” and my mother certainly had similar experiences.

For so many South Asian Americans, the details may be different, but the broad strokes are the same. Each of us can trace our experience back to an immigrant who traveled the longest of distances for a better life. The truth is that Shyamala Gopalan’s story is the immigrant story, and the immigrant’s story is a quintessential part of America.

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But there are those who, right now, are questioning that truth. Under President Donald Trump, our immigration policies have been changed to favor whites. His actions and his rhetoric have shown that he would like to define America as a white country.

The president has described some immigrants as “animals,” white nationalists as “very fine people” and, just this week, he talked of protecting the “suburban housewife” from minorities in the suburbs. White supremacy has been on the rise, often supported by a president who dog whistles and sometimes outright cheers its existence. The question of whether America is for all Americans — Black, Brown, Asian, immigrant as well as native born and white — is at the heart of this election.

A nation defined by principles, not race

That is why the selection of Kamala Harris is so important, and so crucial, in this moment. It says to Asian Americans that we are not just Americans too, but part of the civic life, with the ability to reach the highest of offices.

The president’s racist vision of America couldn’t be further from the truth. America is not a country that is defined by race. It is defined by shared principles and common goals. It is defined by women like Shyamala Gopalan and my mother who are willing to work hard and take on sacrifices in the hope that those who come after them can have it better, and even go on to institute change themselves.

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That creed is more important than color. We are bound together by ideals, not by where we came from or what we look like.

In America, the daughters of immigrant women from India have a place anywhere and everywhere in our country. This is a moment where many South Asians and Asians can feel not just welcomed by this country, but truly embraced by it.

Neera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @neeratanden

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