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Government, Politics & Issues

Indian American Women Say Kamala Harris Makes Them Feel Accepted, Proud and Hopeful

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Nalini Mahadevan
Nalini Mahadevan, an attorney in Clayton, said seeing Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris become vice president-elect filled her with joy. “Women in general are unsung, and if you are a woman of color, you're even more unsung. And finally, here is a woman whose mother came from my part of the world, and reaching the pinnacle is just fantastic," Mahadevan said.

Mina Kini’s weekly family Zoom call on the Saturday after Election Day was far different from any of the previous video chats.

Kini and nine of her family members from India, Europe and the U.S. were all cheering on Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California as election officials counted the vote that could make her and former Vice President Joe Biden the nation’s next leaders.

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Mina Kini
Mina Kini, a diversity and inclusion director from Mumbai said Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris is inspiring women of color to take on positions of power. “Three key barriers were broken. One was the barrier of a glass ceiling because we now have the first woman vice president for the United States. Secondly, the bamboo ceiling as an Asian American and the concrete wall that African Americans and the Black communities face even today, that was broken,” Kini said.

The family celebration intensified when they learned Harris likely would soon be vice president. Kini said Harris, whose mother is from India and father is from Jamaica, is an inspiration for Indian American women.

“Three key barriers were broken. One was the barrier of a glass ceiling because we now have the first woman vice president for the United States,” Kini said. “Secondly, the bamboo ceiling as an Asian American and the concrete wall that African Americans and the Black communities face even today, that was broken.”

Kini came to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, in 1992 to reunite with her husband, who arrived earlier, and to pursue a doctorate at Texas A&M University. After receiving her degree, she worked in the health care field for years, moving to St. Louis two years ago to work for SSM Health as director of diversity and inclusion.

She said Harris’ victory speech made her emotional because Harris could open the door for Indian women and other women of color to be more successful.

Immigration attorney Nalini Mahadevan also sees Harris’ win as a game-changer for women of color. She grew up in India when it had a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, so seeing role models at home was nothing new for her. When she arrived in St. Louis from Mumbai, she quickly noticed that American women did not have that same power.

Mahadevan has been in St. Louis since 1984. She said she is impressed by Harris, who did not come from a political family but ascended on her own merit.

“I’ve lived a lot of years in this country and it’s just the very first time I felt that we've been recognized for our contributions."
Nalini Mahadevan

Harris has long celebrated her mixed heritage. She is a daughter of immigrants and self-identifies as African American. Black people claim Harris as one of their own, as do Indian Americans.

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Miami University
St. Louis University's incoming business school dean, Barnali Gupta, said the election of Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris will open doors for women of color. “Kamala Harris will be sort of the guiding light of God that will inspire so many generations of leaders," Barnali Gupta said.

It’s a huge honor that Harris acknowledges both her Indian heritage and her African American roots, but people only want to box others in because they want to have community, said Barnali Gupta, the incoming dean of St. Louis University’s business school.

“It doesn't matter, in a very global sense we are who we say we are, and then there are how people perceive us, and those two are not necessarily at odds with one another,” Gupta said. “I know that's a really profound thing to say, but I think that's really true. Kamala is perceived as a proud black woman of Indian heritage, and both of those are colorful, and one doesn't replace the other in any way, in my mind.”

Harris’ victory speech brought tears to Gupta’s eyes as she danced and toasted with close family members in her home. She said the California senator’s win reminds her of when she had become the first female, minority immigrant professor in the economics department at Miami University in Ohio. Gupta was elated then and vowed not to close the door behind her.

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Sunitha Thanjavuru
Sunitha Thanjavuru is the only female partner at her anesthesiologist firm. She said Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris motivates her to build up her community and open doors for other women of color who are interested in health care. "I do feel a national belonging more incorporated into the community, by having more of a say so in the community and I feel like we are being accepted, we are being recognized, our voices are being heard," Thanjavuru said.

Now that Harris is elected, Gupta hopes more women of color will aspire to local and national offices.

“Kamala Harris will be sort of the guiding light of God that will inspire so many generations of leaders,” Gupta said.

Both St. Louis anesthesiologist Sunitha Thanjavuru and her 15-year-old daughter were moved by Harris when she spoke of her mother’s influence on her career and when Harris spoke to women — particularly women of color — on her victory night. Thanjavuru has listened to Harris' speech every day since; she said her message was powerful.

Thanjavuru said Harris' vision for women of color is motivating.

“It's dreaming big and making the impossible possible with your determination is what it is,” Thanjavuru said. “I can't exactly tell you how it works, but that feeling and people crying and the little girls on the car waving those blue lights, oh, that really gives me so much hope.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist.com

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