That last word, a Tamil term of endearment for the younger sisters of one’s mother, was met with a fierce outpouring of pride across social media on Wednesday night.
For many Tamil Americans, Harris’s use of சித்தி — which can also be spelled out phonetically in English as “citti,” or “chitthi” — was more than just another word for “auntie.” It was a small but significant way for the vice-presidential candidate to say, before an audience of millions, that she is one of them, too.
Padma Lakshmi, the food personality and TV host, wrote that she had “tears in her eyes,” prompting at least a half-dozen others to declare that they, too, had burst out crying during that moment in Harris’s address.
“My heart is so full right now,” Lakshmi added.
By now, the basics of Harris’s Black and South Asian identity are familiar: Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother who met as graduate students in California, she was raised to appreciate both sides of her mixed-race heritage but also defines herself simply as an “American.”
Yet less commonly acknowledged in that biography is the regional heritage of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan. She grew up in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state with a majority ethnic group known for a deep pride in its distinct language and culture.
More than 240,000 people in the United States speak Tamil at home, according to census data, and a growing number of Tamil Americans — including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, actress Mindy Kaling, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) — have risen to national prominence in recent years.
In 2015, the comic Aziz Ansari featured lengthy snippets of Tamil dialogue during a much celebrated episode of “Master of None,” when his real-life parents appeared on the show to play his fictional ones.
But there’s nothing quite like prime-time politics.
“A Tamil word in an acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Still blows my mind,” wrote Hari Sevugan, the former deputy campaign manager for Pete Buttigieg. “Despite this president, ‘only in America’ is still a thing.”
As Harris’s history-making presence on the ballot has come under the microscope, and some have accused her of playing down her South Asian roots — or not playing them up as much as her Black identity — her use of “chittis” was a swift reproach.
“My Indian mother knew she was raising two Black daughters,” the candidate told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “But that’s not to the exclusion of who I am in terms of my Indian heritage.”
After her parents’ divorce in the early 1970s, Harris often traveled as a child to visit relatives in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu city where her maternal grandparents had retired. She wore saris to family events and spoke Tamil with her relatives, the Times reported.
Back at home, her mother would often use Tamil around the house to express “affection or frustration," Harris said in her autobiography.
Vasu Renganathan, a lecturer in Tamil at the University of Pennsylvania, said her use of the word chittis is a reflection of the family structures among Tamils, including Brahmins like Gopalan and her family in India.
The combination of linguistic Tamil roots that mean “little mother,” it can also be used to refer to a stepmother or even a friend of one’s mother who is a bit younger than her. A popular Tamil soap opera called “Chitti,” which first aired 20 years ago, tells of the relationship between a young girl who loses her mother and the woman she begins to treat as a maternal figure.
Hours after Harris’s speech, Renganathan told The Washington Post he was disappointed that Harris did not sprinkle in more Tamil phrases into the address.
“She could have at least talked about her ‘amma,’ her own mother," he said. “Tamils are passionate about their homeland, and many want to identify themselves as Tamil to distinguish from North Indians or other South Indians."
But, he added, it’s only a matter of time before she uses more Tamil on the campaign trail.