“You can’t expect other people to fight for your rights,” she says calling to build a community and a coalition
Vice President Kamala Harris has shared at a White House forum on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) how her Indian American 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,” Harris said Wednesday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC.
Read: Kamala Harris speaks about the beauty of America’s diversity (May 18, 2022)
She was responding to questions from actress Poorna Jagannathan, an Asian Indian immigrant born in Tunisia who plays the mother Nalani in the hit teen comedy series Never Have I Ever, at the end of the day long forum.
Harris’ 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.”
Read: White House releases national strategy for AANHPI communities (January 17, 2023)
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,” she said in response to a follow up question from Jerry Won, founder and CEO of Just Like Media.
“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 Vice President said 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 Islander 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,” she said.
Read: Biden naming 4 Indian Americans to presidential body on AANHPI communities (December 21, 2021)
The stories Harris told continued a theme that permeated throughout the day-long forum, according to AsAmNews.
Earlier, US 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.”
The all-day forum kicked off the Biden-Harris Administration’s AA and NHPI Heritage Month celebrations. Through breakout convenings, panels, and artistic performances, the forum paid tribute to the rich histories and cultures of AA and NHPIs while encouraging dialogue on the most pressing issues communities face.