Harris had been San Francisco’s high-profile district attorney for more than six years, but Deepak Puri and Shareen Punian had only recently learned that Harris was, as Punian said, “one of our peeps,” a woman whose mother was an Indian immigrant.
They had always assumed Harris was African American, and so did most of the 60 or 70 Indian American community leaders at the event, many of whom asked Puri and Punian why they had been invited.
“At least half of them didn’t know she was Indian,” said Punian, a business executive and political activist.Kamala Harris enters the 2020 presidential race
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) declared her candidacy on Jan. 21 and became the fourth woman to enter the 2020 presidential race. (Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)
Harris, 54, now a U.S. senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, would be several firsts in the White House: the first woman, the first African American woman, the first Indian American and the first Asian American. The daughter of two immigrants — her father came from Jamaica — she would also be the second biracial president, after Barack Obama.
Obama’s soul-searching quest to explore his identity, as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father who was largely absent from his life, was well-documented in his autobiography.
But when asked, in an interview, if she had wrestled with similar introspection about race, ethnicity and identity, Harris didn’t hesitate:
“No,” she said flatly.
President Barack Obama walks along the tarmac with California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, center, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, after Obama’s arrival via Air Force One in San Francisco in February 2011. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Harris stressed that she doesn’t compare herself to Obama, and she prefers that others don’t, either. She wants to be measured on her own merits.
She said she has not spent much time dwelling on how to categorize herself.
“So much so,” she said, “that when I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created.
“My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it,” she said.
Harris’s background in many ways embodies the culturally fluid, racially blended society that is second-nature in California’s Bay Area and is increasingly common across the United States.
She calls herself simply “an American,” and said she has been fully comfortable with her identity from an early age. She credits that largely to a Hindu immigrant single mom who adopted black culture and immersed her daughters in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.
Shyamala Gopalan holds a copy of the Bill of Rights as her daughter Kamala D. Harris, right, is sworn in as San Francisco’s district attorney by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George on Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. (George Nikitin/AP)
“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris writes in her recently published autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”