In her vice presidential acceptance speech Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Kamala Harris of California acknowledged her husband, her children, her sister, her nieces, her godchildren, her uncles and her "chitthis." And it's her use of the Tamil word for "aunts" that created an emotional stir on social media.
Many praised Harris' use of "chitthi," a term of endearment for a mother's younger sister, a paternal uncle's wife or a stepmom in the Tamil language. Harris' use of it as the first Black woman and the first Asian American on a major-party ticket marks a more significant moment for the diaspora, who see themselves reflected on a national political platform in an especially divisive climate.
"In stark contrast to the last four years of anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House, hearing our families' mother tongue spoken by a future vice president of the United States is really a beautiful moment and symbol that Indian Americans are becoming a visible and recognized part of the fabric of America," said Neil Makhija, executive director of the Indian American Impact Fund, which was one of the first South Asian organizations to endorse Harris when she announced her presidential bid in 2019.
Harris' mother, Shyamala Gopalan, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state, where Tamil is natively spoken. More than 300,000 people in the U.S. speak the language, with the highest concentrations in California, Texas and New Jersey, according to the census.
Sunil Sadasivan, deputy chief technology officer for Sen. Cory Booker's primary campaign, said he was both surprised and impressed to hear Harris address her chitthis in her speech. As a second-generation Indian immigrant whose parents are from Tamil Nadu and the southern state of Kerala, he has always straddled his hyphenated identities.
"I've got two chitthis of my own, so it was incredible to hear it. It brought to light the importance of this intersectionality of identities," he said. "I didn't see this side come out in the primary as much, but I did see it come out in her book ['The Truths We Hold: An American Journey'], and it's very powerful."
Tamilians, in general, are known to share close family bonds, and Harris reflected that in her speech. "I think her heartfelt acknowledgment showed respect and that it's a core part of her identity and who she is. I have two boys, 2 and 6 months old, and they get to see a part Indian VP nominee. It's barrier-breaking," Sadasivan said.
He said the word choice was also politically significant.
"For Kamala to address her roots was a powerful move," Sadasivan said. "I think she recognizes this is not a trivial voting bloc and it's something that can change the voting outcome in key districts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas, and she has to appeal to this critical bloc, but it also shows this is a core part of her identity."
According to AAPI Data, 54 percent of Asian American registered voters said in a recent poll that they are supporting Joe Biden. About 29 percent said they will vote for President Donald Trump, and 1 percent said they will vote for a third-party candidate. The remaining 16 percent are undecided.
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Tamil Americans have gained prominence in the last few years, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, actors like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and author and host Padma Lakshmi.
Harris continued to receive support on social media during and after her speech. Lakshmi tweeted that her "heart is so full right now."
Aarthi Gunasekaran, policy manager of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, tweeted: "Watching Kamala Harris speak with such pride about her South Indian mom, while I sit next to my Amma, and my nephew who calls me Chithi, is so special."