Power Players

Kamala Harris is who she is because of her mother's retort to any complaint: 'What are you going to do about it?'

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on June 8, 2020 in Washington, DC
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Kamala Harris made history Tuesday when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced the California senator as his running mate. Harris is first Black woman and first Asian American to be the vice presidential nominee of a major party.  

Being the daughter of immigrants — her father is Jamaican and her mother was Indian — helped shape Harris, 55.

But it was Harris' late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who "was a force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life," she wrote in an Instagram post on March 1, the first day of Women's history Month.

And there was one habit her mother had in particular that Harris said helped her decide to run for president, and presumably accept Biden's invitation to be the vice presidential candidate. It was her mother's consistent retort whenever Harris complained about something: "Well, Kamala, what are you going to do about it?" Harris said her mother always asked.

"My sister Maya and I were raised by a strong mother," Harris posted on Instagram in July 2019. "⁣She taught us not only to dream but to do. ⁣She taught us to believe in our power to right what is wrong. ⁣And she was the kind of parent who if you came home complaining about something, she'd say, 'Well what are you gonna do about it?' So I decided to run for President of the United States." 

Harris says her mother also taught her "the importance of a good education. ⁣She taught us the good old-fashioned value of hard work. ⁣She taught us don't let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are."

And though Shyamala was Indian, Harris said her mother "was very intentional about raising my sister, Maya, and me as strong, Black women," she wrote on Instagram in February for Black History Month. Shyamala took her daughters to a Black cultural center near their home where they were "exposed to extraordinary people like Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou, who helped show us what we could become," Harris said. 

Shyamala was tiny (standing only 5 feet tall) but "hers was a commanding presence characterized by a sharp wit, keen sense of humor and endless depth of knowledge," her obituary reads. She graduated from Delhi University at 19 and later received a Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology from the University of California at Berkeley, where she met Harris' father, Donald Harris. Donald, a former professor of economics at Stanford, and Shyamala split when Harris was a child, according to the Mercury News. Shyamala had a storied career researching breast cancer. She died from colon cancer in 2009 at age 70, according to her obituary.

After Harris was announced as the democratic vice presidential candidate, Maya Harris (who is a lawyer in San Francisco and self-described civil-rights advocate), tweeted, "You can't know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was. Missing her terribly, but know she and the ancestors are smiling today."

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Kamala Harris is a terrific pick and will be a path-breaking vice presidential nominee
Kamala Harris is a terrific vice president pick: Professor