Growing up desi in suburban Georgia, this — what the writer Tanuja Desai Hidier called “Spot the Indian” — was a game of emotional survival. When my parents arrived in the United States in the late 1980s, they were among less than half a million Indian Americans. Public spaces were White by default. We treasured desi sightings, and sought them out beyond grocery stores. We subscribed to the diaspora paper India Abroad, which diligently recorded the spelling bee titles and Rhodes scholarships our community racked up. We clung to these outward markers of achievement; spotting an Indian, in person or in newsprint, helped us prove our own belonging.
When Joe Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris — the daughter of a South Indian mother and a Jamaican father — as his running mate, those early games came rushing back. On WhatsApp and social media, delighted uncles called Harris a “Madras girl” (the old name for Chennai, where Harris’s mother is from); second-generation desi dads posted snapshots of grinning brown daughters with paeans to American promise; people speculated about her dosa-making capabilities.
Recognition is primal. But it can also make us gloss over the complexities of identity — and their unpredictable implications for policy. The heady rush of recognition can lull us into complacency or lead us to quell our deeper ideological convictions.
Harris’s selection appears momentous set against Indian Americans’ earliest political success stories: the Southern, Republican governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. It once seemed that, to succeed in public life, Indians had to swap their outsider status for White conservatism. Haley and Jindal changed their names from Nimrata and Piyush, respectively; Jindal espoused the spurious notion of “colorblindness.” That devil’s bargain involved more than external identity markers: Haley has defended the Confederate flag, and therefore white supremacy, and Jindal deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric. Harris, in contrast, talks often about her Indian background, citing her maternal grandfather’s involvement in the Indian freedom struggle as the source of her political ambitions. In that sense, something big has changed.
But in another sense, nothing at all has changed: The real cleavage in Indian American political life hasn’t been a partisan one, between a Republican like Haley and a Democrat like Harris. Indian Americans still reliably vote Democratic. Rather, the divide is between centrists like Harris and progressive South Asians such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Rep. Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders-inspired grass-roots upstarts like democratic socialist Nikil Saval, a candidate for Pennsylvania’s state senate.
Harris calls up the question facing many upwardly mobile immigrants: Having arrived, how much trouble do we want to make? In her case, the answer seems to be “not very much.” After years of developing an establishment prosecutorial record, she basically lacked an ideological identity in the primary race, which made her the safe choice for Biden.
But those of us who are new to America should be the most intent on ensuring that this country makes good on the promises of opportunity and equality that brought us here. We should be the ones who most demand just legal systems and fair immigration proceedings; who condemn climate policy that causes unequal harm to the nations our families come from. Indian Americans in particular, who have benefited from policies that favor “high-skilled” foreign workers, are for the first time placed to use our collective social capital and financial privilege to make life more equal. But Indian Americans’ joy at seeing Harris on a national stage suggests that desis risk merely joining the system, not pushing to change it.
The rush to claim Harris — to Spot her, triumphally, as one of our own — has other pitfalls: Some desis have begun to conflate her Blackness and her Indianness. In political commentary lauding Harris’s ascent, Indian Americans have celebrated Mohandas Gandhi’s connection to the Black civil rights movement and referenced the discrimination that South Asians have historically faced in America. That narrative actively rewrites a history of anti-Blackness in our own community. Gandhi, for example, began his protests on a South African train by positioning himself as above Black people. Another figure being cited as an immigrant rights hero, Bhagat Singh Thind, petitioned the Supreme Court for citizenship in 1923 on the grounds that he was White.
Desis have been able to take refuge in simulacra of Whiteness in a way that Black Americans cannot. A graduate of Howard University, a historically Black college, Harris emphasizes that her Indian mother brought her to visit family on the subcontinent while also understanding that “she was raising two Black daughters.” If Indians want to claim Harris, we can’t just point to her achievements; we must also engage with the histories at whose intersection she sits.
Like many in my community, I recognize Harris. But I don’t see her selection as a hard-won victory on behalf of immigrants or as the apotheosis of the American Dream — but rather as an identity crisis for a large swath of Indian America. When we see Harris and Biden remove their masks to flash pearly whites this autumn, some of us will decide that we’ve arrived.
But spotting ourselves on the highest stages of public life, and the complacency that brings, opens the door to other toxic ideas, such as nationalism (especially among Hindu Indians). President Trump, in part through his amicable relationship with right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to woo wealthy Indians; Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, have also cozied up to Modi and his party, earning Indian accolades as a result.
For her part, Harris has stepped carefully with regard to India policy issues, delicately defending Jayapal’s right to criticize India’s stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir and saying that Kashmiris are “not alone in the world,” without making Hindutva (Hindu extremism) a key talking point. If she’s elected, I don’t know that we can expect Harris to use her new power as the most prominent South Asian in America to end Kashmir’s historically long Internet blackout, for example, or challenge Modi’s virulent majoritarianism. But desis should demand that, just as Black Americans can demand that Harris confront whether her prosecutorial role harmed their community.
The longer Spot the Indian goes on, the more easily exploitable we become, because we confirm the notion that we vote based on a spark of recognition — that we’re driven by a desire to belong to, rather than transform, America.