Kamala Harris’s Indian Heritage: Her Mother Was Born in India

kamala harris ethnicity

Getty/Instagram Kamala Harris's ethnicity is Indian and Jamaican.

U.S. Senator and vice presidential elect Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother. Her ascendance to the vice president’s posts marks the first time that an Asian-American, Black American, and woman has ever been vice president.

That has a lot of people interested in Harris’ background.

Her dad, Donald Harris, is a prominent economics professor who has spoken out critically about his daughter’s comments in the past on Jamaica. Her mother, though, is deceased.

Harris mentioned her deceased mother during her victory speech on November 7. “When she came here from India at the age of 19 she probably didn’t imagine this moment, but she believed in America” that a moment like this “was possible. She mentioned the sacrifices of women of all races and called Black women the “backbone of our Democracy.”

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, announced that he had chosen Harris as his vice presidential running mate on August 11, 2020.

Harris’s part Indian heritage is a source of pride to a lot of Indians and Indian-Americans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India called Joe Biden to congratulate him. He said he was looking forward to working “closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights,” according to the India Times.

Modi tweeted, “Heartiest congratulations @KamalaHarris! Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans. I am confident that the vibrant India-US ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.”

Here’s what you need to know about Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage:


Harris’s Mom Was Born in India & Was a Breast Cancer Researcher

Kamala’s mother was named Shyamala Gopalan, and she was born in India. According to the Mercury News, Harris often spoke 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.)

Kamala 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,” reports Mother Jones.

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 Shyamala in college. She was supposed to “return to India and an arranged marriage,” but she married Donald 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’s Indian family has spoken to the press. Gopalan Balachandran, her uncle, told The Print he expected her to be the “most active” vice president ever. He is a “former consultant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,” the site reports.

“I am very proud of Kamala, I will call and congratulate her soon… My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the news came out,” said Balachandran to the Indian Express.

He added: “Kamala’s mother would have been very proud too if she were here today… She (Kamala) was very inspired by Shyamala, her mother, who would attend civil rights protests back then. She (Kamala) grew up being a firm believer in equal rights for all, so in the long run I know that she will take steps to guarantee these rights in her country.”

Kamala also has a sister named Maya. Donald and Shyamala divorced when Kamala 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.)


Kamala’s Father, Donald Harris, Was Born in Jamaica

GettyKamala Harris

Both of Harris’s parents were immigrants. Although her mother was Indian, she is Black through her Jamaican-born father’s side.

Donald J. Harris, a professor, 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.

In his article about being a Jamaican father, Donald Harris 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, Donald 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).

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.”

Kamala’s dad is an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford U.

According to his Stanford biography, Donald Harris, at Stanford, “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.”

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