Editor’s Note: Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and the author of “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough.” The views in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Sen. Kamala Harris – who is of Indian and Jamaican descent – challenges our understanding of what it means to be Asian American. It is for this reason that her historic vice presidential nomination is so impactful.
Among the Democratic presidential candidates, Andrew Yang was often cast as the sole Asian American, despite Harris’ background and Tulsi Gabbard’s Samoan heritage.
Yang, a Taiwanese-American entrepreneur, often leaned into the “model minority” stereotype by wearing a “Math” lapel pin, and making joking comments like, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” His platform was also based on the belief that individuals can overcome challenging circumstances less through solidarity with other groups and more from personal decision making along with at least some government support.
Harris, on the other hand, does not fit the Asian American image so readily. Americans of South Asian descent are often overlooked as Asian American, and being biracial still challenges people’s conceptions of race.
For her own part, Harris has not shied away from her Indian heritage, but she never made her Asian heritage as central to her campaign as Yang did with his.
However, her family, and its influence on her career, tell the forgotten history of Asian American solidarity with other groups, which sheds light on the coalitions that formed in the fight for civil rights. Her biography is, in effect, that of the anti-“model minority,” for it connects Asian Americans to African Americans and to progressive causes.
While such an interracial background may seem notable, it certainly wasn’t unprecedented. In the early 20th century, merchant men from Bengal jumped ship in New York City and Baltimore, often settling down with African American, Puerto Rican and other women of color in Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, Detroit and Harlem. Around the same time, farmers from Punjab who immigrated to California often married Mexican American women.
Harris was inspired by her grandfather, who was an Indian civil servant, and her grandmother, who was a community organizer. Her parents were both active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and her mother would bring young Kamala with her to events.
Asian Americans and African Americans have connected together for decades in the shared goal of breaking down white supremacy. Inspired in part by the Black Power movement, Asian American activists coined the term “Asian American” in the late 1960s and 1970s, which replaced the use of “Oriental” – a term with racist and colonialist connotations.
During the civil rights movement, they fought for fair housing and health care for those living in Chinatowns and working in low-wage jobs. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson took time away from his 1984 presidential campaign to publicly support justice in response to the racially motivated murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin.
In the decades since, Asian American civic organizations have protested for police reform and against police brutality targeting their own and Black communities. They have joined other groups in support of prison abolition, for the criminal justice system detains and incarcerates immigrants as well as African Americans at alarming rates.
At least one Japanese American civil rights organization has come out in favor of reparations for African Americans, just as some African Americans did for them in the late 1980s. Asian American activists continue to take inspiration from Black political movements.
A Gallup poll found that 89% of Asian Americans support the Black Lives Matter protests – more than any other non-Black group.
The majority of Asian Americans born in the United States support affirmative action in college admissions and elsewhere, for they too know the brunt of racism facing them and African Americans.
Harris’ biography also highlights how Asian and Asian American women have been active in feminist movements, in contrast to their stereotypical image as quiet and conservative.
They fit a history of Asian American feminism led by self-named “Dragon Ladies” who took ownership of a derogatory epithet and who promoted women’s equality in communities that white feminists had neglected.
The majority of Asian Americans support legal access to abortion. Feminist achievements owe some debt to Asian American women.
For too long, Asian Americans have been viewed as a monolith. And while Harris may seem like an outlier, her family’s history, and its influence on her politics, reflect many distinct Asian American movements and experiences.
The point is not that Harris perfectly embodies the progressive ideals that Asian American activists have fought for; there are plenty of meaningful critiques of her prosecution record as California’s Attorney General.
It’s also true that anti-Black racism among Asian Americans is real. Yet, her story broadens our understanding of what it means to be Asian American.
As such, it recognizes that coalition building is necessary for positive change. Asian Americans can be a model, not in terms of the standard stereotype that pits one group against another in the quest for upward mobility, but as a people who have joined with other marginalized groups in the pursuit of social justice.