Empowerment at First Sight: Kamala Harris and Minority Visibility
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
By Sawan G
On Tuesday, August 11, when Joe Biden announced that his running mate would be Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), I could not contain my joy. I hadn’t really considered how my emotions would play out if she were selected to be on the Democratic ticket. However, the immense sense of pride and triumph I felt upon seeing the news filled me with so much more happiness than I ever would have imagined, especially from a mere news headline. As the Black columnist Donna F. Edwards so succinctly wrote in her Washington Post opinion piece, “I thought that the woman Biden picked didn’t matter – until it did.” As a young Indian-American, I couldn’t agree more.
The day after officially joining the Biden ticket, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden gave their first remarks together in Wilmington, Delaware. That Wednesday evening, my mother, father, and I huddled around my computer screen to hear Sen. Harris’s seventeen-minute speech. Her remarks ranged from deeply personal stories of her family and connection to Joe Biden to moving calls for racial justice, climate justice, and many other important issues that she and Vice President Biden plan to address. For each person in my family, the simmering cauldron of emotions reached its boiling point at a different time in the day. For my dad, the tears of complex joy came when he saw a picture of a young Kamala Harris with her sister Maya dressed in kurta pajamas. These clothes, a symbol of Sen. Harris’s South Asian heritage, combined with her age at the time, reminded my father so deeply of his shared bond with Sen. Harris. My father can remember dressing in that same type of clothing at that same young age, just as his family, friends, and later his children did. As for myself, the moment of exultation came when I saw Sen. Harris’s powerful portrait sitting on my kitchen counter under the The New York Times’ headline, “Harris Joins Biden Ticket, Achieving a First.” I remember saying to my mother and father, in a loud and exuberant voice, something like, “I love her. I mean just look at her; she’s so strong.” For my mother, the moment came as we all sat together watching Sen. Harris speak in Wilmington, Delaware. As Sen. Harris said proudly, “My family means everything to me. And I’ve had a lot of titles over my career, and certainly, vice president will be great, but ‘momala’ will always be the one that means the most,” my mother and father could no longer hold back their tears. I was smiling ear to ear. I hadn’t felt so excited about a political candidate in a long long time.
There are so many complex ways that all types of Americans can identify with Sen. Harris. On one level, my appreciation for seeing my own race reflected in her is somewhat superficial, for her life experience and mine have been quite different. Yet in a society which too often does not respect and celebrate those of non-white skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, forming an initial connection with someone based on a shared ethnicity can mean so much. Seeing another first generation Indian immigrant having a good shot at becoming my vice-president is empowering and elating. The fact that someone of my ethnicity will be on the debate stage this fall, and will hopefully be in the White House come January, conveys that people like me can direct national policy. People like me can be powerful in politics. What it really boils down to is the very empowering understanding that I am represented in the places where power in our country lies.
Furthermore, because of Sen. Harris’ multifaceted identity, she represents the Black, South Asian, immigrant, and female communities who, among many other groups of people, make up the United States. The simple fact that so many of us were celebrating on the day Sen. Harris joined the Biden ticket is a powerful statement of the diversity of the United States–a diversity which is too often a cause for division.
However, my pride in Sen. Harris’ goes far beyond color and ethnicity, for there have been other powerful South Asian politicians in America. In fact, two South Asian immigrants, Republicans Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, are the former governors of Louisiana and South Carolina respectively. Yet, I do not admire or feel represented by these Indian immigrants. Bobby Jindal, someone who has completely endorsed the far right’s talking points and has spread racist theories about Muslims, does not represent me. I, as an Indian-American, am similarly displeased by Nikki Haley’s actions. How could I be proud of someone who overuses inflammatory buzz words such as “Joe Biden and the socialist left” in her Republican National Convention speech while in the same breath denying the existence of institutional racism and the racist origin story of the United States.
Even Kamala Harris’s history in public service does not fully represent me. Although generally considered a Progressive throughout her career, Kamala Harris’ policy stances, especially during her time as San Francisco’s District Attorney, as well as during her tenure as California’s Attorney General, have rightfully drawn scrutiny and criticism from many. In particular, Sen. Harris’s “tough on crime” approach to prosecution, which primarily impacted communities of color, and her not-bold-enough approach to criminal justice and police reform, have drawn criticism, particularly from Progressive Democrats. However, more importantly, I now see that Sen. Harris is willing to listen to her constituents and act upon the social and cultural tides of the time. This has become particularly apparent after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Since that horrific event, Sen. Harris has solidified her stance against police brutality and systemic racism, and become an outspoken advocate for racial justice, thus finding a political purpose that was absent from her presidential bid. It is important to note that Sen. Harris’ shifting beliefs are most likely a byproduct of political pragmatism; however, unfortunately, this is often how politicians stay in office. Despite the mixed motives behind Kamala Harris’ shifting beliefs, her willingness at this time to stand for what is right reveals that she will represent me and my beliefs if elected vice president this fall.
To conclude I see it most fitting to return close to home, to our school. My reflections on the nomination of Kamala Harris, and the pride, joy, and empowerment I feel knowing that she could become my next vice president, have solidified in my mind the need for more diversity in CPS’ faculty and curriculum. For me, as an Indian-American, seeing myself reflected in those who are in power, as is the case with Kamala Harris, is empowering. Furthermore, for all students, whatever their race or ethnicity may be, seeing powerful people of color is equally valuable and enlightening. As such, our school’s commitment to hire more faculty of color, specifically Black and Latinx faculty, is critical to CPS’ Equity and Inclusion work. Moreover, the perspectives and histories that get taught to us students also holds great power, and seeing one’s own historical narratives represented is an empowering experience. That is why the school’s commitment to diversifying the perspectives taught in the History and English curricula is also so important. That is also why our school must develop an Ethnic Studies curriculum. The benefits of Ethnic Studies go far beyond simply enriching and broadening students’ worldviews, no matter their ethnicity. In fact, Ethnic Studies has quantitative effects on student performance as shown by a 2010 to 2014 Stanford study focused on an Ethnic Studies pilot program in the San Francisco Unified School District. School attendance for students in the program rose by 21% and GPA by 1.4 points on average. The benefits are clear, yet, at the heart of the matter is still the feeling of belonging and empowerment that such a course would provide for students of color by giving us the chance to really understand how the contributions of our people shaped America. This is the sense of belonging and empowerment that Kamala Harris has made me feel, an empowerment that, at its core, comes from my ethnicity being visible in places of power.