By Randall Yip, AsAmNews Executive Editor
Washington DC- Vice President Kamala Harris shared about her Indian American heritage Wednesday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.
Her appearance capped a day long forum on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander produced by the White House Initiative on AANHPI where messages of “be seen” and “stronger together” echoed throughout the day.
Actress Poorna Jagannathan who plays the mother Nalani in the hit teen comedy series Never Have I Ever kicked off the question and answer session with the Vice President by saying producers encourage her to bring her lived experience as an Asian Indian immigrant born in Tunisia to the set each and every day. That’s something she said has never happened to her.
She asked the Vice President how her heritage has influenced her life.
“When I think of my mother’s story, I think how she was so comfortable, clear about where she came from, who she was,” said Harris.
Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, came to the United States as part of the first wave of immigrants from India to obtain a master’s degree in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley. She said her mother’s parents were progressive enough to allow her to do that.
At a young age, Harris observed that her mother’s accent would lead people to make false assumptions about her character and intelligence and that she learned early “how these disparities and stereotypes could attempt to define and marginalize.”
“She had a unique ability to really infuse in us a sense of pride, and a sense of understanding that we should not let anyone define our identity,” said Harris. “My mother would often say, ‘you don’t let people tell them who you are. You tell them.”
From her grandfather, Harris said she learned the importance of fighting against corruption and for equality “regardless of where someone was born or, you know, status because India has a very troubled history with that. So my story is being raised in a family and community where there was a real fight to always uphold the importance of independence and identity.”
Harris went on to elaborate after a follow up question from Jerry Won, founder and CEO of Just Like Media, that many immigrants bring with them a “deep knowledge of the power of government and the importance of Democracy and what happens when democracies don’t exist and are attacked.
“You can’t expect other people to fight for your rights. We build community and we’ll build a coalition. But one has to also step up and make sure that we are all in the room when these fights occur so that each person can offer their voice based on their experience,” said Harris.
The stories Harris told continued a theme that permeated throughout the day-long forum.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai recalled that Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of the death of former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta.
“He didn’t settle for just being the first,” said Tai. “He dedicated his life for justice. He understood the power of our collective stories.”
Deputy Assistant to the President Erica Moritsugu pointed out that 14% of the administration identifies as Asian American Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and that “We are more visible than ever before.”
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said that “representation matters. It is essential that we advance legislation that centers the needs of the AANHPI community.”
She called Julie Su, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, a “champion of workers.”
U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said “For me the doors have always been open by people looking out for me. We also have to give back.”
Model, author and trans-right activist Geena Rocero shared that for eight years her modeling agency did not know she was trans.
“I was in the business of imagery, but I wasn’t being seen. It’s a dark reality I managed for eight years.
The Vice President wrapped up the day with this final thought.
Some of us will get an opportunity to walk into a room and see that we are the only Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Island or even the only woman or the only person of color.
“You walk in with your chin up and your shoulders back. Knowing that when you model that you are representing the voice of so many people who are so darn proud that you are getting that opportunity.”
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