Vice President Kamala Harris Headlines White House Celebration of AANHPI Heritage Month

The daylong event featured several AANHPI performers, business leaders, and Biden-Harris administration officials.

WASHINGTON, DC — A packed auditorium stood up and cheered for a long moment as Vice President Kamala Harris took the stage May 3 at George Washington University here, during the White House celebration kicking off Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The theme of the event was “Visible Together.” AANHPIs have long been in the shadows of American society, though they are the fastest-growing immigrant population.

In her remarks onstage, Harris said that at many junctures in her career, she has felt like the only person of color in the room. “My mom used to say to me: ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do this, but make sure you’re not the last,’” said Harris, who is the first Indian American, Black, and first female Vice President in the US.

Actress Poorna Jagannathan with Vice President Kamala Harris. (Sunita Sohrabji photo)

“You may find when you walk into a room that you are the only one who looks like you or has your lived experiences,” said Harris. “My message is: walk in with your chin up, shoulders back, knowing that you are representing the voices of so many people who are proud that you’re in that room.”

“We are all in that room with you. You are not walking in that room alone,” she said, to cheers from the audience of more than 1,300 people. United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who also delivered remarks onstage, noted that the gathering was the largest participation of AANHPIs of any administration. “Bigotry and violence have threatened to ravage our communities for decades. Many of us feel like we are invisible. But our administration sees you. Your voices help drive our agenda,” she said.

Before beginning her onstage conversation with Harris, actress Poorna Jagannathan — who plays a doctor coming to terms with the unconventional lifestyle of her teenage daughter in Mindy Kaling’s hit television series “Never Have I Ever” — shared her story of invisibility. “My heritage always made me feel like a bit of an outsider, yet suddenly it is a thing. So many incredible stories of the diaspora come from it. And it has brought me all the way to you today. So what a gift.”

Also sharing the stage was Jerry Won, producer of the popular podcast “Dear Asian Americans.”

Actor Daniel Dae Kim. (Sunita Sohrabji photo)

Many of the most visible members of the community attended the star-studded event, including actors Daniel Dae Kim — Lost, Hawaii Five-O — and Kevin Kreider, whose credits include The Ugly Model and Bling Empire. Singer Eric Nam shared a videotaped conversation with US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: in a lighthearted moment, the two pondered the name of their possible Indo-Korean fusion band.

Other singers included MILCK — who sang her emotionally-raw anthem “I Can’t Keep Quiet,” which focuses on sexual abuse — Wolftyla, Sonny Singh of the Red Baarat Band, and Keilana.

News anchors Lisa Ling of CNN and Richard Lui of MSNBC moderated panels during the daylong event. Several members of the Biden-Harris administration were also featured, including Neera Tanden; two days later, President Joe Biden announced that Tanden will serve as the next head of his domestic policy council, replacing Susan Rice, who is stepping down June 1.

Brooklyn, New York-based singer Sonny Singh (center) of the Red Baarat Band. (Sunita Sohrabji photo)

The crowd also went wild as Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, spoke of the need to confirm Julie Su as Labor Secretary. Su — who would be the first AAPI woman to serve in that role — is facing an uphill battle for confirmation. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia has said he will not vote for Su, who has faced opposition from several corporations for her pro-worker stance.

Rep. Judy Chu, Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, appeared via video. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra took to the stage to advocate for disaggregated data, and in-language access for all public documents. “On behalf of all of us working in this administration, we want you to understand that, with you, we will make a difference,” he said.

“Thanks to President Biden, our community has become more visible than ever before. We have an unprecedented AANHPI representation in the Administration,” said Erika Moritsugu, Deputy Assistant to the President and AANHPI Senior Liaison at the White House.

Erika Moritsugu, Deputy Assistant to the President and AA and NHPI Senior Liaison at the White House (at the mic.) To her left are Stephen Benjamin, Senior Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Krystal Ka‘ai, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. (Sunita Sohrabji photo)

Gautam Raghavan, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, said during a panel discussion: “President Biden has comprised the most diverse administration in history. Half of our appointees are people of color, and 14% are AAPIs.”

“He has said: ‘build me an administration that looks like America. And across America, people who thought they could never serve at the White House have joined the administration,” said Raghavan, who also served in the Obama administration and as Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s chief of staff.

In her onstage conversation with Jagannathan and Won, Harris spoke about abortion rights, noting that 74% of AANHPIs believe abortions should be legal. “We need to have a Congress that will put the protections of Roe vs. Wade into law,” she said, adding: “My mom always fought for women’s health.”

The late Dr. Shymala Gopalan, Harris’ mother, was a breast cancer researcher who worked with the National Institutes of Health for much of her career. “We cannot be telling women what they cannot do with their bodies. It’s immoral,” said Harris.

Harris also spoke about the need for a ban on assault rifles. She noted the spate of mass murders at primary schools and said kids are afraid to attend classes. “We need to have the courage to end gun violence,” she stated.

An afternoon panel – The Power of the AA and NHPI Voice, featured Eric Nam, Artist and Co-Founder, Creative Director at DIVE Studios/Mindset; Estella Owoimaha-Church, Executive Director, Empowering Pacific Islander CommunitiesJohn C. Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC; and Versha Sharma, Editor in Chief, Teen Vogue. The panel was moderated by CNN anchor Lisa Ling.

The Vice President also spoke about the alarming spike in hate crimes against the Asian American community. The web portal Stop AAPI Hate has logged over 11,000 self-reported hate incidents and crimes over the past three years.

Vanita Gupta, Associate Attorney General at the Justice Department, noted that hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen by 167%, but are nevertheless under-reported. “Under collection is a real problem,” she said.

“Enforcement is just one piece of this puzzle. We are training law enforcement to be more responsive, helping to create greater access to anti-hate hot-lines, and creating better methodology for data collection,” she said.

In a deeply-moving moment, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur read her poem “Broken English,” which she dedicated to all immigrants. Kaur’s book of poetry, “Milk and Honey,” is one of this year’s most-banned books, according to a list released by PEN America.

“They had no family, they had no friends…two university degrees that meant nothing,” chanted Kaur.

The mainstage event can be watched here in its entirety: