It was hectic at the Singh-Sidibe house as they watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday: Diapers had to be changed, granola vacuumed up from the floor, and the kids added some impromptu harmonica solos as the trumpets blared from the television. But seeing Kamala Harris get sworn in was something this family wasn’t going to miss.
“Kamala Harris is Black and Indian. She was awesome because it felt great to have another Black and Asian person. I’m mixed and I’m proud of it,” said 6-year-old Sumaya Kaur Sidibe, who lives in San Francisco with her parents Joti Singh and Bongo Sidibe.
Singh is the daughter of Punjabi immigrants, who grew up in a suburb of Atlanta.
“Where I grew up is now famous for being a place where Democrats are able to win. When I was growing up, it wasn’t like that all,” said Singh. “It was a very white suburb. It was Newt Gingrich’s district. There were a lot of Confederate flags, maybe still are. It wasn’t an easy place to be South Asian growing up.”
Her husband, Bongo Sidibe, immigrated to California from Conakry, Guinea.
“Growing up for me it was very different, because where I'm from, everybody knows each other," he said. "Before you’re even in your mommy's tummy, they already know about you. We have some political and race issues, but you don’t see it living in an African community. Everybody supports each other, is there for each other.”
The Singh-Sidibes are teaching their girls to honor their mixed heritage more than a half-century after Harris’ parents – from India and Jamaica – raised their two little girls. Sidibe hopes Sumaya and her 2-year-old sister, Jaleela, will take heart from seeing someone in high office who looks like them.
“We keep telling them, ‘You know, she's just like you. She's Black and Indian,’ ” he said. “That gives the little ones more hope that they can do something like that. I mean, when you look at the history of the United States. There's never been a woman as a vice president and especially, a woman of color. That’s a big, big step.”
“Are those happy tears or sad tears?” Sumaya asked her mom as they watched the ceremony together.
“Happy tears,” Singh sniffed.
“I’m crying a little bit, too,” said Sumaya.
Harris’ time in law enforcement has left some California progressives like Sidibe and Singh feeling conflicted, though.
“I find her role in [law enforcement] problematic,” said Singh. “She was responsible for a lot of people going to jail. At the same time, I know representation is important. And I didn't even have any teachers who looked like me when I was growing up, much less a vice president.”
Singh hopes that Harris’ visibility as both a South Asian and a Black woman will bring about change, especially within communities of color.
“South Asians really want to claim her now,” said Singh.
“I'm hopeful that it will bring up a lot more conversations in South Asian communities around anti-Black racism. I really hope that South Asians are forced to reflect on that more and to do something about it.”
Singh said she knew her kids’ lives would be different, growing up in California, than hers was in Georgia.
“But before they were born, I don’t know how much I was thinking about structural racism in law enforcement, schools and health care, and how it would affect their lives, no matter where they went in this country,” she said.
“I’m not Black, and I’m not mixed, and I wasn’t anticipating how different their challenges would be," Singh said. "But now that they’re here, they get to learn about these two amazing cultures that they come from, and the third culture they’re being brought up in.”
For now, Sumaya said she’s got a to-do list for Vice President Harris.
“Fix coronavirus and racism. Because she's Black and Asian, and I think maybe she knows more about racism,” she said.
Bongo Sidibe and Joti Singh are the founders of the Duniya Dance and Drum Company, where they fuse West African and South Asian dance and music. We'll bring you more of their story in the coming months through a series on The California Report looking at Kamala Harris as a lens for questions of race, identity and history in California.
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