Vice President Kamala Harris has an interesting family tree. What is her ethnicity? Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother. Her ethnic background has been noted because they both are historic firsts for a U.S. vice president.
Her father, Donald Harris, is a prominent economics professor who was very unhappy about comments his daughter made about Jamaica. He wrote a lengthy essay about their Jamaican background, which you can read in full here on a Jamaican news site.
President Joe Biden announced that he had chosen Harris as his vice presidential running mate on August 11, 2020. Harris squared off against former Vice President Mike Pence on October 7 in the first vice presidential debate. She is not only the first female vice president but the first Black woman and Indian woman nominated for a major party’s national office.
Biden has praised Harris as being a role model for girls of all diverse backgrounds, saying, according to Politifact: “This morning, all across this nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls who so often may feel overlooked and undervalued in our society. But today, maybe, just maybe, they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way.”
Harris’ mother is deceased; she was named Shyamala Gopalan, and she was born in India. According to the Mercury News, Harris often speaks about her parents’ immigrant experiences. Her mother was a “breast cancer researcher from India who had a powerful presence despite her five-foot stature” and died in 2009 of colon cancer, the newspaper reported. (Learn more about her family here.)
According to The New York Times, Donald Harris hasn’t said much about his relationship with daughter Kamala and they’ve been described as estranged, although he’s also expressed pride in her. However, the parents divorced when Kamala was young and it was a tense situation after that, The Times reported.
Her dad wrote in the Jamaica Global essay:
As a child growing up in Jamaica, I often heard it said, by my parents and family friends: ‘memba whe yu cum fram.’ To this day, I continue to retain the deep social awareness and strong sense of identity which that grassroots Jamaican philosophy fed in me. As a father, I naturally sought to develop the same sensibility in my two daughters. Born and bred in America, Kamala was the first in line to have it planted.
Here’s what you need to know about Kamala Harris’s ethnicity:
Harris’ Father Is a Naturalized U.S. Citizen
Donald J. Harris, a professor, has a lengthy history of scholarly work. He was born in Jamaica and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, according to his Stanford University biography. You can find a list of his publications and articles here. He once wrote an article called, “Reflections of a Jamaican Father” for Jamaica Global Online.
Harris has written a lot about his Jamaican heritage. In his article about being a Jamaican father, he wrote, “To this day, I continue to retain the deep social awareness and strong sense of identity which that grassroots Jamaican philosophy fed in me. As a father, I naturally sought to develop the same sensibility in my two daughters. Born and bred in America, Kamala was the first in line to have it planted.”
In the article, Harris explained the family’s Jamaican roots, writing:
My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town) and to my maternal grandmother Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan, farmer and educator, from Aenon Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me). The Harris name comes from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, land-owner and agricultural ‘produce’ exporter (mostly pimento or all-spice), who died in 1939 one year after I was born and is buried in the church yard of the magnificent Anglican Church which Hamilton Brown built in Brown’s Town (and where, as a child, I learned the catechism, was baptized and confirmed, and served as an acolyte).
In his essay, he also wrote:
This early phase of interaction with my children came to an abrupt halt in 1972 when, after a hard-fought custody battle in the family court of Oakland, California, the context of the relationship was placed within arbitrary limits imposed by a court-ordered divorce settlement based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, ‘a neegroe from da eyelans’ was the Yankee stereotype, who might just end up eating his children for breakfast!). Nevertheless, I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children or reneging on my responsibilities as their father.
He indicated,” All grown up now, Kamala is carving a way for herself in America and Meena is doing the same by her own route (as is her mother Maya).
According to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, “Donald J. Harris is best known for bringing Post-Keynesian economics (particularly the Kaleckian and Neo-Ricardian brand) into development economics.”
Harris’ dad is an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University.
According to his Stanford biography, at Stanford, he “was a leader in developing the new program in Alternative Approaches to Economic Analysis as a field of graduate study. For many years he also taught the popular undergraduate course in Theory of Capitalist Development.”
Donald Harris takes his Jamaican heritage very seriously.
Kamala Harris was asked on the radio about whether she smoked pot when she was young. She joked, “Half my family’s from Jamaica, are you kidding me?” That comment upset her dad. He felt it was an unfair slam on the family’s Jamaican roots. In fact, he was so upset that he released a statement to a Jamaican news site to clear up the matter.
“My dear departed grandmothers (whose extraordinary legacy I described in a recent essay on this website), as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics,” he wrote, according to Politico.
Added Donald Harris: “Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.”
“Jamaica is a country where more than 90% of the population is of African ancestry,” said Judith Byfield, a professor at Cornell University, to Politifact. “So the idea that because her dad is Jamaican she has no African ancestry is completely false.”
Harris’ Mother Taught Her the Importance of Public Service
What of Harris’ mom? Her mother was a strong influence in her life, especially because her father and mother divorced.
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, “emigrated from Chennai, India, to come to the University of California-Berkeley to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology,” reported Mother Jones.
According to Politifact, “Harris grew up in a Black middle-class neighborhood in Berkeley, where her parents would often join civil rights protests.”
In 2017, Harris wrote on Facebook, “On the last day of Women’s History Month I want to recognize my mother, Shyamala Harris. My mother was born in India and came to the United States to study at UC Berkeley, where she eventually became an endocrinologist and breast-cancer researcher. She, and so many other strong women in my life, showed me the importance of community involvement and public service. #WomensHistoryMonth.”
Her Jamaican-raised father met Gopalan in college. She was supposed to “return to India and an arranged marriage,” but she married Harris instead, the magazine reports. According to the Mercury News, Gopalan “was the precocious daughter of an Indian diplomat and a women’s rights activist in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu.”
Kamala Harris also has a sister named Maya.
Donald Harris and Shyamala Gopalan divorced when Kamala Harris was 7. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, when she was 12, “Harris moved from Berkeley because her mother accepted a research job in Canada. She graduated from high school there.” In between, the Chronicle reports, she was indeed, as she said in the first Democratic debate, “part of the second class to integrate Berkeley’s classrooms when she began school in 1969…Thousand Oaks Elementary School, in a well-off area in North Berkeley near Solano Avenue, was the school to which Harris was bused.” The Associated Press reported that “the school board didn’t agree to desegregate all 14 elementary schools until the beginning of the 1968 school year.” (See a fact check of Harris’s busing and integration claim here.)