In 1958, graduate student Shyamala Gopalan moved from India to the United States to study biomedicine, even though at the time it was a field lacking immigrant and women representation. No matter, she’d go on to a distinguished career in breast cancer research while raising a family in the Midwest and northern California.
Sixty-two years later, her oldest daughter became the first Asian American and woman vice president of the United States.
Kamala Harris spoke Wednesday at the White House Forum on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), held at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, to a crowd full of people with origin stories not so different from hers. Harris recalled childhood memories spending time with her grandfather in India and being raised in a family that upheld the importance of identity. She was also acutely aware of discrimination and racial bias growing up with parents of Asian and African (on her father’s side) descent. Harris saw how disparities and stereotypes attempt to define and marginalize people and encouraged audience members celebrating the start of AANHPI Heritage Month to take control of their own narratives.
“We should not let anyone define our identity,” Harris said. “My mother would often say, ‘you don’t let people tell you who are; you tell them who you are.’”
Harris no longer needs an introduction. Her historic victory running alongside President Joe Biden in the 2020 election gives her the double distinction of being the first woman and woman of color to hold the nation’s second highest executive branch office. Her presence made “Visible Together” a fitting theme for the forum, as her ascendency from district attorney to the vice presidency serves as inspiration for others with similar backgrounds and ethnicities.
But despite the concerted efforts to foster diversity and inclusion in the Biden-Harris administration, where the AANHPI population accounts for 14% of its workforce, the vice president’s visit to campus comes less than two months after a new FBI report noted the number of hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent rose to its highest ever yearly total. That makes dialogues and cultural celebrations such as the ones presented at the forum Wednesday take on that much more importance.
GW President Mark S. Wrighton provided introductory remarks. “I am proud of our university’s ability, in the heart of the nation’s capital, to serve as a location for today’s events,” said Wrighton. “But more importantly, I am proud that members of our university community are actively participating in discussion, highlighting contributions and advancing many efforts that enhance equity, justice and empowerment among Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.”
The forum also included groundbreaking artists, politicians and community leaders paid tribute to AANHPI cultures while engaging in candid dialogue through breakout convenings, panels and performances, held both at Lisner Auditorium and the University Student Center. Some noteworthy names included Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), M.A. ’92, New York Times best-selling poet Rupi Kaur and “Lost” actor Daniel Dae Kim.
Wednesday also marked the second time this calendar year that Harris visited GW’s campus after she participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities honoring the great civil rights leader at the university’s annual day of service on Jan. 16.
The vice president used some of her time to speak about the nation’s most pressing political issues—including reproductive health care and gun violence—through the lens of racial and gender discrimination. She didn’t mince words when responding to the reversal of Roe v. Wade last June, calling the Supreme Court’s decision and the subsequent legislation in states cracking down on abortion and reproductive rights as “immoral” and “unconscionable.”
Harris recognized that the impact is even more severe for women of color and those with language barriers and said the way to resolve some of these attacks against basic rights and identity—such as an increase in AANHPI hate crimes—is to continue electing officials who ensure that government represents all instead of some.
“A lot of the work we have been doing in this administration is addressing what we must do to address empowerment of communities but also to fight against injustice,” Harris said.
Harris noted that the administration’s work of advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce has led to both representation and action on behalf of marginalized communities, including legislation such as COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and re-establishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Harris also addressed gun violence and how it is used against people of marginalized communities, stressing the need for common-sense gun reform such as background checks, red flag laws and bans on assault rifles.
“We have to step up and demand action,” said Harris, referencing the bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed last summer as a starting point. “Lives are at stake.”
Speakers throughout the day celebrated being together as a community in one room while addressing societal challenges and stressing the importance of using that energy to push forward.
Duckworth, a GW international affairs alumna, appeared virtually to discuss the importance of both celebrating progress and continuing to push for more change. She mentioned the hardships the AANHPI community has faced when the nation’s choices betrayed its values, especially incarceration and relocation during World War II.
The senator from Illinois, who was present when Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, told the crowd that leaders and citizens will continue to listen, stand and protect the AANHPI community, and that this month also serves a humble reminder of the bigoted behaviors they have already fought and will continue to fight.
“It’s a time to honor both how far we've come and to recognize the work still to be done to ensure that every Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and every other person, regardless of race, can achieve the American dream,” Duckworth said.
Becerra, who is the first Latino to hold his position, touted the work of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. He, fellow co-chair Ambassador Katherine Tai and Krystal Ka’ai, the initiative’s executive director, all spoke Wednesday. Becerra said cabinet members and the participating federal agencies are committed to making the right investments to help advance justice and equity for the AANHPI.
“Thank you for caring enough to make sure that your voice is heard and thank you for making sure we are doing this together,” the HHS secretary told the audience.
Members of the GW community were invited to participate in the White House event and appreciated the inclusion and opportunity to hear from so many influential figures committed to protecting and advancing AANHPI rights.
“The fact that they gathered so many people, senators and officials here from the administration, many who are Asian, is just really cool,” said first-year international affairs major Manreet Kaur, who is involved with GW’s Asian American Student Association (AASA).
“To have this at Lisner and the University Student Center just feels surreal,” added first-year archeology student Sam Lee, also a part of AASA.
Leaving a parting message, Harris told the crowd to walk into every board meeting and conference room with confidence despite not looking like or sharing life experiences with many—or any—people in those settings.
“You walk in that room with your chin up and your shoulders back knowing that when you walk in that room, you are representing the voice of so many people who are so darned proud that you are in that room,” Harris said. “And we are all in that room with you.”
Institutions at GW and around D.C. are offering free events during AANHPI month, including:
- “Prayer and Transcendence” at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, ongoing
- Around the World Embassy Tour, ongoing
- Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration, May 8
- Live! on the Hill Presents South Asian music and dance performance by SAPAN, May 12
- Asian Art Museum Centennial Celebration, May 13
- Fiesta Asia Street Fair, May 20