Around 1967, my parents, sister and I had ventured from Manhattan to New Jersey on a summer day to join my mother's friend day at the beach. She was taking us to one her family used to frequent.
But no sooner had she pulled into the entrance lot and rolled down the window than the male attendant turned the car away, saying the beach was full.
Except we could see clearly that it wasn't.
Our host politely noted the empty parking spaces, but the attendant was firm, saying we'd find space at a different beach on the other side. On reaching there, we understood what he really meant: We'd find only brown- and black-skinned people there, like ourselves.
In middle school then, I remember how mortified our African American host had been for unknowingly bringing us into that hostile situation, and how my shocked parents tried to make her feel better. But by then the day was shot, the sting of racism overpowering the scents of the ocean, the grills and the lure of the waves.
Our parents had experienced racial prejudice in British-occupied India before independence in 1947. Then they'd built careers at the United Nations in New York, promoting global human rights and economic development. But that didn't prevent their bumping up against racism on their 1952 honeymoon in Bermuda. They were turned away from the hotel they'd booked, and every other hotel they tried.
My sister and I had been championing the civil rights movement, but most of what we knew was from positions of relative privilege, in an enclave of like-minded idealists. Sure, once in a while you'd bump up against a microaggression — like the woman down the hall in our apartment building who yelled at us for cooking Indian food because she couldn't stand the smell of it.
But the beach incident was different. It was a public place in 1960s New Jersey where we had every right to be, but were blocked from going. I wondered at the time if it was us as much as our host the gatekeeper was so intent on keeping out. Or if, in the company of white people, we might have been given a pass. There weren't many Indians in America at the time, not enough to pose a threat to the country's demographic mix. And the ones we knew mostly stuck to each other. We were still foreigners, who intermingled.
This is where Kamala Harris comes in and why, on the day Joe Biden announced her as his running mate, I found myself jumping and whooping with joy. Finally, it seemed, the top tier of government would have a powerful, whip-smart Indian, Black, American woman whose life story reflected broken barriers. And, unlike me, who started out as a foreigner, she's U.S.-born, the product of school busing and a graduate of the historically Black Howard University. She'd accompanied her Indian mother and Jamaican father on civil rights marches as a child.
Though some of us have questioned some of Harris' moves as a prosecutor and attorney general, I feel confident she'll use the bully pulpit and push legislation to eliminate the sorts of racial disparities many of us experienced.
Part of why this feels personal is that when I was growing up, there was no real template for South Asian Americans to follow. When the beach incident happened, I hadn't yet come to understand the tiers of prejudice and privilege in which skin tone and features play a disproportionate role. Economics could sometimes compensate, but only to a point. When I got to college, well-meaning white friends didn't understand that I wasn't looking to be just like them.
So when a good friend told me, "You know, I never think of you as Indian," it didn't land as the compliment she intended. I realized she'd never really get me without understanding my cultural upbringing or the barriers still blocking the paths of people who looked like me.
In one of my early post-college jobs as an energy analyst, the New Jersey Department of Energy sent me and a Black colleague named Molly to a Fuel Merchants Association convention in an Atlantic City resort. There we faced rampant racism, barred from the same hotel restaurant twice (until I threatened to make a scene), not served at the bar, required to pay for our room upfront in cash, unlike everyone else, and to prepay for phone calls from our room. On hearing of this, the energy commissioner was so incensed, he filed a complaint against the resort with the state Civil Rights Department, and we ended up signing a consent decree. It required the resort to have an enforceable anti-discrimination policy and training, and public signs all over to that effect.
So it has broken my heart to see America lose ground under a president who deliberately used race to stir up conspiracy theorists and fringe militant groups to his political advantage. Not getting ahead in life? Blame the ones who look different, and have foreign names. Ridicule affirmative action and political correctness, and say nothing when police needlessly arrest or kill Black subjects.
Now, watching footage of white supremacists who stormed the U.S. Capitol, and reading some of their confused, contradictory social media rants praising God and America while trashing liberals and parts of the Constitution, something clicks. What many seem to lack is a sense of identity or purpose beyond what they're against, which Donald Trump amplified. While new immigrants have been working against great odds, whether to process meat or earn a Ph.D., these folks seem stuck in place.
Harris, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is, what she wants and how to get it, through hard work and winning elections. These pillagers still seem to think their whiteness and maleness should get them across the finish line first.
Finding consensus will be challenging, but today is truly a new day in America, and each of us has a role to play in making it work — now with one more barrier bridged, one more symbol of what's within reach.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her e-mail at email@example.com.