My family is from Chennai. Here’s what Kamala Harris means to me

I always thought there was a limit for Indian Americans who chose nontraditional careers

As Kamala Harris assumes her new role as vice president, the words of her former Senate colleague — “I don’t know, whatever” — are still ringing in the air. But their power may be waning.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As Kamala Harris assumes her new role as vice president, the words of her former Senate colleague — “I don’t know, whatever” — are still ringing in the air. But their power may be waning. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 20, 2021 at 1:18pm

OPINION — Growing up in West Virginia in the 1990s, I could probably count on one hand the figures in politics who looked like me. At the time it was hard to imagine when I’d see a female vice president, much less one with similar roots.

Both sides of my family are from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Its capital, Chennai, is where my mother grew up and several of my family members still live.

CQ Roll Call reporter Sandhya Raman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In 2017, I began reporting on Congress for CQ Roll Call — the same year an experienced prosecutor and rising political star named Kamala Harris arrived in the Senate. I had been following her career, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but knowing her mom came from Chennai gave me chills. 

She was the first Indian American senator and just the second Black woman to hold the office.

That year was an eventful one. It brought us new South Asian lawmakers in the House, including Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Over in the Trump administration, Republicans were moving into new roles as well, with Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations and Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As a health policy reporter, I watched especially closely as Seema Verma took the lead at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

What strikes me now, as I prepare to cover another new administration, is how different things seem in just a few years. For me, the feeling is both familiar and surreal.

Speaking at the Democratic National Convention last year, Harris sprinkled in Tamil words like chithi, one of the terms used to describe an aunt. 

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It resonates because I grew up first speaking Tamil, and later learned English in preschool. It resonates because I had my own aunt Kamala, who died a few years ago. It resonates because I always thought there was a de facto glass ceiling for Indian Americans who picked nontraditional careers.

Working in political journalism as a young woman of color isn’t easy. Earlier this month, a mob of rioters came to Washington and violently stormed the Capitol — a place I’ve walked hundreds of times — many of them brazenly displaying white nationalist symbols.

That shook me. Still, no one can deny that the political landscape is shifting. My path didn’t overlap much with Harris’ on the health care beat, since that wasn’t her focus in the Senate, but she did take an interest in maternal mortality. I watched the biracial daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants call for better outcomes for Black mothers, an area where America is failing. 

Last October, I cringed when then-Sen. David Perdue of Georgia mispronounced Harris’ first name at a campaign rally. 

“I don’t know, whatever,” he said to the crowd after pronouncing it a few ways, playing it for laughs. 

Harris and Perdue were Senate colleagues, but he still felt he could fall back on this lazy kind of gag. It was easy for him.

It reminded me of times growing up. My high school swim coach called me “Sandy” because it was just “easier” — not because it was a word I had ever used to refer to myself. I didn’t want to anglicize my name to help him glide effortlessly through his job, but he went ahead and did it anyway. 

I wonder if that will change now. As Harris takes her role as vice president, she’s stepping forward under a heavy symbolic weight — she’s making history, breaking barriers, shattering ceilings. Her job will be hard.

As for me, I’ll keep reporting on health care and trying to hold the powerful to account, with an added twinge of recognition as Harris brings to the national stage experiences that are also mine. 

When Harris talks of fond memories of walking along Elliot’s Beach in the neighborhood of Besant Nagar in Chennai with her grandfather, I see what she’s seeing. I can relate.

It’s soothing to know that Harris will have that picture in her mind as she places a new marker for young women on the verge of their own careers.

Sandhya Raman covers health care for CQ Roll Call.