‘Backhanded racism’: Biden supporters weigh in after GOP senator mocks Kamala Harris’s name

WASHINGTON — After Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., mocked Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s name, supporters of the Democratic ticket responded with a viral Twitter campaign that decried Perdue’s comments as “backhanded racism.”

The social media push included a tweet from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Biden, a coalition of grassroots groups backed by the campaign, that blasted Perdue and encouraged supporters to share the stories of their own names with the #MyNameIs hashtag.

“We can all relate to this kind of backhanded racism — which is still racism and wrong,” the Biden coalition wrote. “KAMALA means Lotus Flower in Sanskrit. Our names have meanings. We matter.”

Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, would achieve a string of historic firsts if elected vice president: the first Indian-American, first woman and first Black person to serve in that role.

Perdue made his comments on stage at a Friday rally in Georgia moments before President Trump was set to take the stage. The senator, who sits with Harris on the Senate Budget Committee, said he didn’t know how to say her first name and botched it while Trump supporters laughed.

“Kamala, or Kamala, or Kamala, or Kamala-mala-mala,” Perdue said, emphasizing different syllables. “I don’t know. Whatever.”

Following backlash over the remarks, Perdue’s campaign issued a statement saying he “simply mispronounced Senator Harris's name, and he didn't mean anything by it.”

The Biden and Harris supporters who posted on the hashtag started by the campaign’s Asian-American group clearly didn’t buy that explanation. The hashtag went viral with celebrities, political figures and others sharing the roots of their names. Harris’s niece, the lawyer and author Meena Harris, was among those who joined the push.

#MyNameIs Meenakshi. I'm named after the Hindu goddess, as well as my great great grandmother,” she wrote. “I come from a long line of strong women who taught me to be proud of my heritage and to demand respect — especially from racist white men like @sendavidperdue who are threatened by us.”

Sen. Kamala Harris at an Arizona campaign event. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Sen. Kamala Harris at an Arizona campaign event. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Multiple senior Biden staffers also weighed in, including former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who works as the campaign’s director of surrogates.

#MyNameIs Michelle Wing Kwan & in Chinese pinyin it's pronounced Guan Ying Shan. It means beautiful, strong and smart. What's not beautiful, strong or smart is mocking ppl for their 'foreign sounding' names,” Kwan wrote.

Some of the people who tweeted about Perdue’s comments invoked former Virginia Sen. George Allen’s 2006 “macaca moment,” in which the Republican lawmaker used the racial epithet against an Indian-American volunteer for his opponent. The incident was widely seen as pivotal to Allen’s subsequent defeat.

“#MyNameIs Seema, which means ‘limit.’ It's ok (but hard) to mispronounce my name, but mocking an Indian name in 2020 is just as wrong as it was in 2006 (remember when George Allen called a Sen. Webb staffer macaca and welcomed him to America?). Vote. Them. Out,” wrote former Democratic National Committee CEO Seema Nanda.

“#MyNameIs Daniel Dae Hyun Kim, or in Korean, 김대현. It means ‘great and powerful one.’ My name is not ‘Macaca’ or ‘Kung Flu.’” wrote “Lost” actor Daniel Dae Kim. “And @sendavidperdue, her name is not ‘Kamala Mala Mala I Don’t Know Whatever.’ #Respect. One more reason to vote for @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris.”

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Macon, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Sen. David Perdue speaks during a campaign rally for President Trump at Middle Georgia Regional Airport. (AP/John Bazemore)

According to the Twitter analytics service RIteTag, as of Sunday morning, the hashtag was generating 483 tweets per hour and reaching over 950,000 viewers hourly.

For its part, the Trump campaign has not responded to questions about Perdue’s comment. The Biden campaign has also refrained from issuing a direct statement on the matter.

Asked about this, Pili Tobar, Biden’s coalitions community director, framed the social media defense of Harris as an outgrowth of the campaign’s efforts to engage Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

"We're proud to have earned the community’s trust and support,,” Tobar told Yahoo News. “Now they’re excited to be part of a campaign that is committed to building the broadest coalition and uplifting their voices.”

The Biden campaign has made a point of reaching out to Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and South Asians, a diverse group that has not always received tailored outreach. While polling focused on the community is sparse, the third annual Asian-American Voter Survey, released last month, showed Biden has an advantage with multiple Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. That survey also indicated there are substantial numbers of undecided voters in the community, making it a potential growth area for the Democratic ticket. The Biden campaign’s efforts on this front have included a historic television ad buy and targeted pitches with a policy platform that has been translated into 19 languages. “AAPIS For Biden,” the campaign organization that launched the #MyNameIs hashtag, includes Thai Americans for Biden, Hmong Americans for Biden, and AAPI Veterans and Military Families for Biden.

The network of grassroots supporters in the community similarly rallied around Harris with a hashtag campaign during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7.

Harris’s sister, the lawyer and Democratic activist Maya Harris, responded to the Twitter outpouring on Saturday evening and described it as a moment for people from diverse communities to demonstrate their political power.

“Scrolling through #MyNameIs at the end of a long day & it’s giving me life. My name is Maya (magic/illusion) Lakshmi (goddess of beauty & wealth),” she wrote. “People mispronounce my names all the time, but you can’t tell me nothin’. I know who I am. Show these folks who we are.”


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