ART CHECK

Cultural place of Asian Americans in the US

Issues around birth to immigrant parents and ethnic identity stir debate on political eligibility

In Summary

• The birther conspiracy alleges constitutional inability to run for office in America on the basis of foreignness

• However, factually, Senator Harris is an American, just as was President Obama

Senator Harris Kamala
Senator Harris Kamala
Image: COURTESY

Last week on August 11, US presidential hopeful Joe Biden chose California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris is a seasoned politician with a background in law and was born in the same year our republic came into existence, 1964.

The senator is an accomplished figure in American society, and her nomination has received support across the political divide. However, her detractors have cited issues around her birth to immigrant parents and ethnic identity to debate her political eligibility.

Her father and mother migrated to the United States on education grounds. The former is a retired British Jamaican black professor and the latter was of Indian decent. This makes the increasingly famous running mate of Biden to be classified as a “black Asian American.”

 
 

The colour matter, and its tropological significance, has consequences in American politics. The race history of the United States continues to influence its modern society and power dynamics in many ways. The Black Lives Matter Movement, in the wake of the George Floyd murder this year, highlighted this topic internationally. A section exists that supports Biden’s choice of running mate Harris on the basis of her cultural identity, and even gender.

Asian Americans exist as a US community that brings together people with ancestral roots in Asian countries. In East Africa, the term Asian is used as a synonym of Indian. It is common to talk of Asians of East Africa to mean primarily people of Indian origin or descent. Pakistanis are at times included in this East African categorisation as well as Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. However, Arabs, Chinese and even Thais are rarely viewed as Asians according to our societies from Kenya to Uganda and Tanzania.

In America, the situation is different. Asians imply the various nationalities, races and communities from Asia. For example, descendants of Chinese, Mongolian or Indian parents would be classified as Asian Americans in the US. This broad categorisation operates on a simple logic. African Americans are Americans of African cultural descent, and Asian Americans are, therefore, Americans of Asian ancestry or cultural heritage.

Kamala Harris is considered an Asian American by way of her mother, Prof Gopalan Shymala. The late professor was born in colonial India but moved to the US in the late 1950s. There she met and married Donald Harris, a retired professor of economics of the famous Stanford University in California. He grew up in northern Jamaica in the town of Saint Anna’s Bay, which is the home of the famous Reggae musician Burning Spear and the legendary pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.

It is because of this Jamaican ancestry that Kamala is considered black by American standards. Similarly, a child of a white American mother, President Obama is considered black because of his father’s roots in Kenya. In both cases, Kamala and Obama have non-black mothers but attain their cultural status as blacks in America by way of their paternal cultural roots.

Africans, even here in Kenya, follow the race politics of America keenly, and their sympathies tend to rest with their cultural counterparts in the US. Undoubtedly, the choice of Kamala Harris must have been based on her competency, character and experience, among other desirable qualities. However, her ambivalent identity and cultural roots have opened up a race debate in American politics and Kenyans have been followed closely.

Recent claims by some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, on Senator Harris’ ineligibility in the upcoming American elections have been partially informed by her hybrid cultural roots. The so-called birther conspiracy is summarised simply as the constitutional inability to run for office in America on the basis of foreignness.

 
 

Constitutional law experts have already dismissed these jingoistic claims using apt sections of the American constitution. It is not lost on Kenyans that President Obama faced the same conspiracy because of his hybrid cultural parentage. He was born in Hawaii in the USA but conspiracy theorists, including President Trump, had argued against his first presidential bid on the basis of foreignness.

The same case now faces Senator Harris. Factually, both President Obama and Senator Harris are Americans and iconic politicians of 21st Century American society.

***

Today, on this same day of August 21, Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii officially became the 50th state of the United States of America. This was in 1959. A couple of years later, America’s first black President was born there to a man from Kisumu and a woman from Kansas.

Interestingly, America’s most famous Asian American writer today is Maxine Hong Kingston. She was born in the rainbow state of Hawaii, like Obama, to parents of Chinese cultural heritage.

Kingston today resides in Senator Harris’s California, just as does our own national novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Their life stories are emblems of cultural hybridity and ambivalent identities of the new America. Cultural hybridity is the rainbow spirit of the global village we all inhabit today.