Tonight, all eyes will be on U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as she faces Vice President Mike Pence in the vice-presidential debate. As a woman of South Asian descent, seeing her on that stage will be a sweet feeling of belonging and joy for me. I was the first South Asian woman to win the title of Miss America in 2014, so Harris and I have at least two things in common: being the first in our fields, and embracing our identity while doing so. For me, seeing a name like “Kamala Devi Harris” on the ticket for Vice President means that it is possible to keep the core of our identities and be in positions of power.
Harris’ nomination has not gotten such a positive response from everyone, though. She has been repeatedly vilified by backers of the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Trump administration. Particularly, they have come after her name, like when Fox News host Tucker Carlson deliberately and repeatedly refused to pronounce it accurately even after a guest corrected him on the air. (“Just think like ‘comma,’ and add a ‘la,’” Harris likes to say.) By doing this, Carlson and his ilk are “othering” her; making it seem as though Harris doesn’t belong in America — and neither does anyone with a "different" name.
This behaviour is not unfamiliar to me: I remember the xenophobic and racist comments that came my way the night I became Miss America, representing New York, when I performed a Bollywood dance in a traditional Indian lehenga as part of the talent competition. After my win, droves of online trolls called me a “terrorist,” “Miss 7-11,” and “un-American” because of my ethnicity and the color of my skin.
The type of treatment Harris and I have received is unfortunately nothing new to South Asian people in positions of power: Rep. Pramila Jayapal recently had to correct the pronunciation of her name in a Congressional hearing after a Republican congresswoman repeatedly mispronounced it. There seems to be a party divide among South Asian politicians when it comes to who changes their name. Former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nimrata Haley uses her middle name “Nikki.” Piyush Jindal, the former governor of Louisiana, was a child when he started going by “Bobby,” after a character in The Brady Bunch, and has further distanced himself from his Indian roots as an adult. Haley and Jindal are both Republicans. Democratic politicians of South Asian descent like Harris, Jayapal, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, have preferred not to change their names. Others, like California Congressman Rohit “Ro” Khanna and Hoboken, NJ, Mayor Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla, use common nicknames. Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian-American to be elected to Congress in 1957, a Democrat from California, went by his original name. This leads me to wonder whether Republicans are more eager to change their names in order to appeal to their core constituents. But is that worth sacrificing our identity?
Kamala Harris’ first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit and is also another name for the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi, who represents wealth and prosperity. Her middle name “Devi” also means “goddess,” and it is the name of the Hindu mother goddess, a nurturing force with a fierce side. Both are deeply revered symbols of South Asian culture. Harris' mother Shyamala told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that she chose Kamala’s name for an auspicious reason: "A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women."
"The symbolism is that the lotus flower sits on water, but never really gets wet,” Harris said about her first name, according to The Washington Post. “Its roots are in the mud, meaning it is grounded. One must always know where they come from."
Like Harris, I have never forgotten where I come from — and I believe that seeing her embrace her heritage will have a profound impact on future generations to come, on our willingness to understand our roots and to celebrate them. But it wasn’t always easy for me to internalize this concept.
Growing up, I rarely found my name on those license-plate name souvenirs in gift shops. Yes, “Nina,” which means “attainable” in Sanskrit, is not an uncommon name, but it still stung when I was out of luck. And forget about my sister’s name, Meenakshi — or even Meena, as she goes by for short. My parents told us that they named us “easy” names for people to pronounce in order to assimilate with American culture, and I hear similar sentiments from a lot of my South Asian friends who take on “Starbucks names” socially. My friend Navdeep tells the barista his name is Ricky. Samyuktha? Sam. Radhika? Rachel.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Andhra Pradesh, India, in 1982 after they had an arranged marriage. My mom told me that upon arrival, her sister-in-law advised her to stop wearing her mangalsutra (a sacred necklace that we equate to a wedding band for women), bindi (the “red dot” which symbolizes many traditional aspects of our culture) — called bottu in our Telugu dialect, or her chudiyan (gajulu in Telugu) decorative bangle bracelets, so she doesn’t stand out too much. Being the youngest and “newest” in the family to immigrate here, she listened.
I’ll never forget the story she shared with me about wearing a sari on her first day of class at Baruch College in the mid-’80s. The stares she got on the subway and from her professors sent her running to the women’s department at Macy’s to buy her first pair of jeans. Growing up, she and my father taught me that others “wouldn’t understand our culture or religious beliefs.” We did our poojas (prayer) at home, called our pinnis (Telugu for auntie) “aunt” when referring to them publicly, and kept our heads down.
But unlike the others who assimilated, I always questioned why I should have to conform to American standards: I was the little Indian girl who performed classical Indian Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dances every year in my school’s talent shows, from elementary to high school — and I was proud of it.
For many second-generation South Asians, the assimilation conversation is often connected to “equal opportunity.” One South Asian-American couple I know encapsulated this by naming their children Josh and Marie to “end name bias.” One of the parents told me, “The teasing of my South Asian name was very painful at a young age, and I felt my parents made an insufficient effort at assimilation into the society they chose to live in. It was very important to me not to repeat those mistakes for my children.” It was recently reported that our community’s achievements have led us to being dubbed “the other 1%”: From New York City private school applications, to college admissions, to job interviews, many parents have believed that giving their children non-South Asian-sounding names would increase their chances for success in this country.
With that in mind, it makes me even more proud that Kamala Devi Harris overcame the odds. A major-ticket candidate who wears a sari, makes dosas with Mindy Kaling, and thanks her chitthis in her speech at the Democratic National Convention — while also never compromising on representing her Black roots — makes me feel that I don’t ever have to sacrifice a part of my culture in order to be successful. I told my mom recently that it’s because of her generation’s sacrifice that my generation has more freedom to be ourselves, that we can celebrate our identity and be proud of who we are. It was a moment of gratitude between us; for her, that things have changed, and for me, that people like her paved the way.
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My talent was always what felt like my crowning moment. 💃🏽👸🏾 It’s crazy that it’s been 6 years since winning @missamerica. And tonight, we’ll welcome a new young woman to the sisterhood. As I look back there’s so much I want to say to baby Nina. But to represent my most happy & truest self in front of millions is a feeling that is quite difficult to articulate. So to baby Nina, I’ll say never forget that feeling. There will be MANY ups & downs, but keep chasing dreams that are true to who you are. Never stop dancing. Keep creating. And sister, just eat the cake. 🍰 — Tune in tonight on @nbc to see our new @missamerica crowned! 👑
In 2014, I was in the limelight just like Harris will be tonight, but on a different type of stage. I performed a classical fusion Bollywood dance in my bejeweled, red lehenga, expressing the joy and passion I feel for my culture with every step. I had been told by several past judges while competing for Miss New York, “Nina, you’re too Indian, be more American. If you’re really serious about winning Miss America, change your talent because a Bollywood Indian dance will never win. America just isn’t ready for someone like you.”
Well, I was ready for someone like me, even if not all of America was. And I won. I remember telling myself that if I’m going to win, it has to be in my way and on my terms; I have to represent myself truly and authentically, otherwise what’s the point? From the beginning, I realized, it was never about me — it was about that little girl who I knew was watching Miss America the night I won, saying, “This year, Miss America looks like me. And I don’t have to fit into a mold or stereotype to win a certain role or position.” The little girl in me doing Indian dances in her school talent shows knew that it was never in vain.
Tonight, I’ll be watching Kamala Devi Harris — a woman who shares my heritage — on the debate stage. Soon, I’ll hopefully be able to say that the Vice President looks like me. And tonight, more than ever, I feel that any position is attainable for women like me, whether it’s Miss America or the Vice President of the United States of America. Perhaps it’s no coincidence at all that “Nina” means “attainable.”
Nina Davuluri made history in 2014 as the first South Asian woman to become Miss America. Currently, she’s producing the documentary COMPLEXion, and is a filmmaker, activist, actor, and entrepreneur.