During the Joe Biden-Harris political campaign, Harris’ auntie status — as an elder female authority figure worthy of respect — was not only acknowledged, but made its way onto a sweatshirt as part of an effort targeting South Asian voters.
“Vote for Aunty” the text of the sweatshirt reads, with an image of Harris looking pensive — almost smirking. It’s the kind of face she might make when pausing during questioning someone like Brett Kavanaugh, who now is an associate justice on the Supreme Court. In the instantly iconic image, Harris also wears a bindi, and mehndi can be seen on her hand — both nods to her Indian heritage.
Harris has broken many barriers. And as the first female vice president-elect, she is also the first auntie in this role — a significance that is just beginning to be examined.
In her Aug. 19 speech accepting her vice presidential nomination, Harris gave a nod to her own Tamil aunties when she acknowledged her family, code-switching nonchalantly: “Family is my uncles, my aunts — my chitthis.”
“American audiences don’t know the meaning of chitthi, they would not even have noticed,” Harris’ uncle, Gopalan Balachandran, who is based in Delhi, told India’s ThePrint outlet.
But many did notice. And her auntie status sparked a sweatshirt design as well as a push to register and get out the AAPI vote.
Auntie as Icon — and Apparel
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are a fast-growing voter group, but also one that has had historically low voter turnout.
“That has changed dramatically in this election cycle,” wrote Tom Bonier, an adjunct lecturer at Howard University and CEO of TargetSmart, a targeted voter data organization, citing “an unprecedented surge in participation” among AAPI voters this year.
Perhaps having an iconic auntie on the ballot helped?
Hanifa Abdul Hameed is the East Coast visual artist behind that “Vote for Aunty” sweatshirt — and knows the power of the auntie figure. “Growing up in South Asian communities, I always called anyone older than me ‘auntie’ — as a form of respect,” Hameed told KQED.
“I remember growing up I would call my babysitters, who were Caucasian, ‘auntie,’ ” said Hameed (Colors of Honey on Instagram), adding that she feels uncomfortable calling someone older by their first name to this day.
Hameed worked directly with the Harris campaign to create the sweatshirt design. The product is a collaboration between Meena Harris — Kamala Harris’ niece and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign — and South Asian actors Nik Dodani and Vineet Chhibber.
“It was their idea to create something for the campaign that is catering to the South Asian community — and would get South Asians hyped up,” Hameed said.
Hameed created a version of the design with Harris in a sari, but in the final design Harris wears a blue suit. The collaborative process took a few weeks, and Hameed — who also works full time as a UI/UX designer at IBM — said she was grateful to see her art out in the world “making a difference.”
“I started just putting more digital art out during the pandemic, and seeing all these well-known people wearing my art is surreal,” Hameed said. “I am surprised at how much good feedback I am getting, and it makes me happy that people feel connected to it.”
Defining an Auntie
While “auntie” is generally a term of respect, being called out by aunties for walking too far outside society’s unwritten norms is another characteristic of the auntie in the popular imagination. But there’s far from one definition.
Thus, the auntie can be the one who scolds you for not coming to visit often enough, tells you that you’ve gained weight and also cooks all your favorite food (and forces you to eat more than seems humanly possible.) She may or may not be directly related to you.
The narrator in “Never Have I Ever,” the Netflix show from executive producer Mindy Kaling, describes aunties as “older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you, but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings and you have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.”
A recent episode of NPR’s podcast Code Switch took a deeper look at what Harris’ prominence helps illuminate (and obscure) when it comes to South Asian political identity — and explored how Harris might find herself the focus of a scolding auntie. As someone of Indian origin, Harris is both an auntie and the subject of auntie critique.
“She might face anti-Black racism from aunties and uncles who might tell her to stay out of the sun,” said Nitasha Sharma, an associate professor of African American Studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.
On the Shoulders of Iconic Aunties
Harris walks in the footsteps of many women before her, as she has acknowledged in her speeches — with U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, perhaps the most iconic figure in recent California “political auntie” history. Waters is best known for her no-nonsense interactions with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, resulting in her much-memed “reclaiming my time” moment.
Calling Waters “Auntie Maxine,” as many did on social media, also stirred debate around whether the term could be construed as disrespectful, rather than an honorific. Black celebrities like Oprah and Ava DuVernay said they did not want to be called auntie.
Meena Harris has been cheering on her aunt since long before the campaign began, and others like Hameed are eager to see if having an auntie in the White House creates change.
VICE PRESIDENT AUNTIE pic.twitter.com/AE1xP5Mmxq
— Meena Harris (@meenaharris) November 8, 2020
“Seeing someone that looks like me, and has a similar background as me is pretty inspiring. Coming from her backgrounds, I think she’ll better understand the people in this country and represent them better,” Hameed said.
Exactly how the United State’s VP-elect will wield her auntie power? That remains to be seen.