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Opinion: The Tamil Brahmin Takeover of Kamala Harris

"In Tamil communities, Hindu fascism, casteism and racism go hand in hand."

The internet erupted when Kamala got nominated as Biden’s running mate. Twitter was in a frenzy and many Indians tweeted their sudden undying support for Kamala. Kanimozhi, the daughter of Karunanidhi, ex-chief minister from the DMK political party of Tamil Nadu, was one of the people who tweeted about Kamala Harris congratulating the Democratic Party on its ‘inclusiveness’.

Another poster circulating on Facebook groups, shows ex-chief minister from the AIADMK party of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha giving her blessings to Kamala Harris. The poster congratulates Kamala Harris’s grandfather, a Tamil Brahmin hailing from a village in Tamil Nadu, Painganadu. This village and a certain Hindu temple have incidentally become quite famous for being a place of worship for Kamala’s mom’s side of the family. The temple as such has since been proudly claiming to have had Shyamala Gopalan Harris as their patron, with several banners circulating across the internet congratulating Kamala on her victory.

Translation: Good luck to VP candidate Painganaadu Tulasendirappuram's P. V. Gopalan's granddaughter Kamala Harris, From AIADMK party of Painganaadu Tulasendirapuram district.

Several people on Tamil centred Facebook groups were quick to point out their frustrations with Kamala not identifying as a South Indian. Some called it a ‘political ploy’, others called for the boycott of the democratic party for having chosen a half Indian candidate who refuses to accept her own ‘culture’.

The common thread in all of these interactions within my community made one thing very clear: no one was willing to acknowledge Kamala Harris’s identity as a Black woman. And everyone was quick to celebrate and point out her Brahmin roots.

Anti-Blackness in Tamil communities 

In Tamil communities, Hindu fascism, casteism and racism go hand in hand. In 2019, when the famous Tamil singer, Sudha Raghunathan’s daughter was set to marry a Black man, the whole community was in an  uproar. The entire family received several racist threats, and Sudha Raghunathan, in particular was trolled by Hindu nationalists asking for local Carnatic music halls to cut all ties with her.

Tamilians are considered as one of the biggest Dravidian ethnic groups. Dravidians, according to Webster Dictionary, are defined as ‘a member of an ancient dark-skinned people of southern India’.

Despite a rich history, there exists a high degree of internalized racism and bias towards dark skinned persons. This is seen through skin whitening creams and matrimonial ads seeking fair skinned brides. This is seen in our movies; men who ‘bag’ fair skinned actresses in the movies are hailed as heroes.

This is also seen in politics. When Tarun Vijay, a BJP leader claimed that India is not racist and that South Indians are Black people, DMK leader TKS Elangovan responded with ‘we too are fair’.

Anti-Blackness, casteism and immigration

Immigration laws have long favoured upper class Hindu Brahmins immigrating from India. The South Asian ‘heroes’ in mainstream media, all lauded for being ‘immigrants’, having made it from rags to riches is a narrative rooted in Brahmin supremacy.

Shyamala Gopalan has spoken proudly of her Brahmin roots, claiming that the ‘Gopalan’ name goes back a 1000 years. Kamala speaks of her mom as a strong, immigrant inspiration, a leading cancer researcher who raised her and her sister.

The claim of the immigrant success stories in mainstream media does not factor in caste and colorism. It is almost always the highly educated Brahmins who immigrated to the US who have a 100% chance of making it.

Persons like Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and Padma Lakshmi are seen as South Asian success stories. Immigrants who came to the US with nothing but a dream. There is often little to no conversation about how their caste privilege played into their success. In the case of Kamala Harris, it is a simultaneous celebration of her Brahmin roots while blatantly ignoring her identity as a Black woman.

Based on brahmanical patriarchy, a person who is not fair is automatically considered ‘impure’, ‘untouchable’ and what not. Certain scriptures from the 'Manusmriti' emphasize that women are lesser than men and that fairness of skin is purity.  Honestly, while these scriptures propagate outdated and dangerous narratives, it is a wonder why a bulk of Brahmins are rejoicing the fact that Kamala Harris has become the first Black and Indian vice president in US history.

It is literally impossible to be the shooter and be shot at, all at the same time. You cannot be Brahmin and claim to have no opinions about reservations. It is a fact that there are 2 million Hindu temples in India as of 2020. Brahmins have 100% reservation to be priests in these temples.

Currently, when researching Dalit politicians with a simple google search, we find only 35 persons listed. 35, let that sink in. In a population of over 200 million Dalits, there are just 35 politicians. On top of this there have only been 2 Dalit presidents of India, roughly 3 Dalit Chief ministers of state and no prime ministers of India from the Dalit community. In comparison, Brahmins who are in politics, have held office since time immemorial, around 12 chief ministers of states, 5 presidents of the country and 5 prime ministers of the country. With the amount of representation we see here, imagine the claims of identity politics played.

Bottom line 

The fact of the matter remains that Kamala identifies as a Black woman.

However, when talking about her Tamil side, while making dosas and speaking of her childhood memories in Chennai, she conveniently leaves out having been born into an upper caste family. If she ran her political campaigns as a Tamil Brahmin woman, it would mean that she has privilege. No one would want to attribute their success to their privilege. It will not help them in the process.

Tamil Brahmins need to stop claiming her as one of their own. It for one, is not serving their case. The same people, who if Kamala was not a VP candidate and their relative married a Black man, would shun and shame them. The minimal connection she has to Tambrahm is considered a trophy. This superficial acceptance perpetuates a narrative of casteism and anti-Blackness.

Ultimately, we know this time around many Tamils voted for Biden-Harris mainly with the idea of getting Trump and his cronies out of office. It is a historic moment having the first Black and South Asian female VP in office but it also means we need to continue to hold politicians accountable. We also need to continue to break down harmful narratives around caste, colorism and anti-Blackness in our own communities.

To watch our interview with Thenmozhi Soundararajan from Equality Labs on 'Kamala Harris: Why does caste matter?', head here.
About the author

Varuna is a queer immigrant woman of color. She writes and creates educational content around decolonizing sexual health, prioritizing emotional wellness, and reproductive justice.

Divya is a paediatric physiotherapist, Feminist, Periyarist and Ambedkarite. She works on Dalit/Bahujan activism.



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