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Overlooked 'because of her accent': How the story of Kamala Harris' mom resonates with immigrants

"She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent. She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously," Harris said of her mother during her own presidential campaign.
Image: San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office
San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George during inauguration ceremonies Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. In the center is Harris' mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who holds a copy of "The Bill of Rights."George Nikitin / AP file

Sen. Kamala Harris has long been vocal in describing the immense impact her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, has had on her own trajectory and outlook. Since she was announced on the Democratic ticket last week, details about the senator’s background — including her mother's story — have resonated with many immigrant communities.

While on the campaign trail for her presidential run, for example, Harris revealed how Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher who died in 2009, remained resilient despite the fact she was often diminished in the eyes of others because of her status as an immigrant.

“My mother, who raised me and my sister, was a proud woman. She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent,” Harris said. “She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously. Or because of her accent, assume things about her intelligence. Now, every time my mother proved them wrong.”

Experts say that this is reflective of the misconceptions that immigrants, including those of Asian descent, are perpetually up against, and the grit necessary to decimate such assumptions.

“It is easier to overlook immigrants of color, including Asian American and Pacific Islanders, because of stereotypes that they may not be as well trained as whites or know enough of American culture to be effective in their jobs,” Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, told NBC Asian America.

Gopalan’s story has been described as inspiring, as she took an uncommon path for an immigrant of her background at the time. At 19 years old, she left India to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley, she would become enveloped in the civil rights movement, meeting Harris’ father Donald J. Harris, whom she’d later divorce, at a protest. Gopalan, who earned her doctorate by the age of 25, went on to be a breast cancer researcher, making significant inroads in the field. Her findings, in part, lead to a better understanding of progesterone and hormone-responsiveness in breast tissue, prompting many advances in the subject. Her research also landed her a position on the President's Special Commission on Breast Cancer.

On top of her work, Gopalan also juggled raising her two daughters largely alone after her divorce. Harris reminisced in a video with the actress Mindy Kaling that her mother would prepare a week’s worth of meals and prepare fresh-baked cookies for her kids to eat upon coming home from school.

Yet in spite of her accomplishments, as Harris noted, her mother would continue to confront misconceptions that she lacked intellect because of her brown skin and heavily accented English. And Gopalan’s experience is symptomatic of how Americans have traditionally looked at immigrants. Research, published in 2009 in the Journal of Extension, on the ability to speak English and its consequences shows that accents may be a more acceptable form of discrimination in the country with the attribute of unintelligence often assigned to those who speak with a heavy accent. The paper points out that a number of cases, including Xieng v. Peoples National Bank, have been brought to trial against an employer regarding discrimination based on language or accent.

Dhingra added that for Asian women, their accents are often interpreted as “third world” or a symbol of less education.

“This was especially the case when Gopalan was younger, when the image of India was even more bound by so-called National Geographic preconceptions than today,” he said.

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, noted that Asian Americans, particularly those with accents, are perceived as “forever foreign” and less socially skilled. These biased perceptions, the scholar noted, produce tangible consequences in the workplace and labor market. She noted that Asian immigrants armed with advanced degrees and professional work experience from their countries of origin often find they are unable to transfer their professional status in the U.S. labor market.

A report from the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University revealed immigrants with foreign college degrees were significantly more likely to be mal-employed, meaning their education exceeded the education and skill required for the job, at 36 percent. In comparison, roughly 18 percent of their counterparts with U.S. degrees were mal-employed.

“As a result, they work in jobs that are far below their skill and educational level, resulting in status inconsistency between their pre- and post-migration status,” Lee said. “But apart from this, what a loss and waste for the U.S. labor market that is failing to capitalize on the talent and experience that highly-skilled Asian immigrants can offer.”

Even the sight of an Asian name on a job application can trigger employers’ biases. A joint study from the University of Toronto and Ryerson University in Canada noted that names like “Xuiying Zhang” and “Samir Sharma” were 20 percent likely to get callbacks from large organizations compared to those with Anglo-sounding names like “Greg Johnson” and “Emily Brown.” While a master’s degree increased the Asian-named applicant’s chances, people with Anglo-sounding names still continued to fare better with just an undergraduate degree.

As Dhingra puts it, Asians “often have to go an extra mile to prove their credentials and abilities relative to whites.”

However, Harris noted that Gopalan refused to buy into such false notions of her character.

“Because of who my mother was and what she believed, what she had the ability to dream was possible and worked to make possible,” the senator said while on the campaign trail. “The fact that my mother never asked anyone permission to tell her what was possible is why, within one generation I stand here as a serious candidate for the United States.”

Dhigra said that Gopalan’s story resonates as so many others have also forged ahead in the face of harmful stereotypes.

“The conversation didn’t end with how Gopalan was treated but with how she proved others wrong, that she spoke up with her accent and made her case,” he said.

He added that when Asian Americans have achieved economically, it isn’t solely because of their high education, but because they have fought to be seen with respect.

“It’s impossible to refer to immigrants generally or even Asian Americans as all being resilient. But, immigrants are used to putting up with a lot of hurdles in order to claim their various accomplishments,” he said.

Lee noted that as the daughter of immigrants who was raised by a “a strong, proud, and principled immigrant mother who was often judged because of her foreign-born status, discernible accent, race, and gender,” she saw her mother’s story reflected in Harris’ characterization of Gopalan. While, like Gopalan, her mother was able to prove others wrong, Lee said she recognizes that dismantling bias does not rest only on individuals, but “ is embedded in our history and our institutions.”

“Hence, addressing bias is much more than an individual endeavor,” she said.