Kamala Harris and the Complicated, Burdened Joy of Representation

Kamala Harris and the Complicated, Burdened Joy of Representation

Though I am American, as a child of Indian immigrants, I have never felt fully accepted as one—a feeling of alienation that grew more acute after 9/11, and deeper still with the election of Donald Trump. Not Black and not white, as a girl, I struggled to understand how I fit within America’s racial hierarchy. To be Asian American is to be seen as docile, hard-working, polite, and politically non-threatening. I never imagined that I could one day share the identity of a politician in the White House, or what that might mean to me.

But after Kamala Harris was nominated for vice president, I allowed myself to envision what the 13-year-old me could not: I re-watched a clip from Harris’s presidential campaign speech, in which she describes her mother Shyamala Gopalan, a petite Indian woman. “She was a brown woman,” Harris said. “She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously. Or because of her accent, assume things about her intelligence. Now, every time, my mother proved them wrong.” The description, which reminded me of my own mother, momentarily brought me to tears.

Harris is a reflection of the America that Donald Trump fears: She is a child of Black and brown immigrants, of a Jamaican-born father and Indian-born mother who protested together as civil rights activists. In her memoir The Truths We Hold, Harris wrote that after her parents divorced, her mother “knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.” Harris’s very nomination is a rebuke to a president who seeks to “make America great again” by emboldening white supremacists and protecting America from a false threat of an invasion of immigrants cast as rapists and criminals. If the Republican ticket represents the nation’s past, thanks to Harris, the Democratic ticket is a more accurate representation of America as it currently exists.

Harris is well aware of the symbolic and historic nature of her nomination, as she voiced at an event hosted by Asian American advocacy nonprofit, One APIA Nevada, during her presidential campaign: “I often think about the work that we do of breaking these barriers as being, again, not only about personal achievement... It’s about making a statement and redefining images about who can do what and how we do it.”

While I agree with Harris, my ability to see myself in her identity has also prompted important questions about how we define representation and what it means to be represented. Harris’s candidacy illuminates the complicated reality of how Black and brown women are viewed as political symbols—to the left, as progress, and to the right, as threats—appearing always, especially if they are ambitious, as risky. Like many Black and brown women, my feelings are mixed: I am struggling with how to balance my excitement over the historic nature of her candidacy with my desire for radical political change, underscored by a resentment that I exist in a political system where representation is so sparse that I am expected to feel grateful or satisfied with having a candidate who shares my identity—or the assumption that, because I share in someone’s identity, we hold the same values.

Even in the most diverse Congress ever, 78 percent is white, and 76 percent is male. It is clear that there’s a systematic barrier blocking the advancement of women, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups, along with issues that matter to them—lawmakers belonging to minority groups often credit their own experiences and identities as influencing their legislative priorities. But as studies of women in legislatures show, this type of representation—what political scientists call “descriptive representation”—does not necessarily lead to “substantive representation”—breaking down barriers within these communities. Representation of identity means little without substance and a political and social context that empowers change.

Politicians can also invoke identity to justify oppression against the very communities they claim to represent: Republicans have used Amy Coney Barrett’s womanhood to advance an agenda against abortion and other civil rights that will disproportionately harm women, gay and trans people, and people of color, particularly when their identies intersect. Nor do I feel any kinship, for example, with Republican Indian-American politicians like former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Trump ambassador Nikki Haley, or former White House press secretary Raj Shah—all of whom broke barriers as Indian-Americans in politics, but did so at the expense of people in the very communities we come from. In August, when Haley invoked her Indian immigrant background at the RNC to argue that America isn’t racist and Trump “is leading a new era of opportunity,” I felt disgusted and ashamed.

And so, as an Indian-American woman and a feminist, witnessing Harris’s rise brings a complicated, burdened excitement; the kind of excitement that at times I hold onto as an act of defiance, and other times I experience with denial or even shame. It has been a delight to watch her patiently and masterfully tear down incompetent white men like William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh with clear, direct logic, a cool demeanor, and a wry smile. Despite being a relatively junior member in the Senate, she has quickly distinguished herself as a star through lines of inquiry that have led to revelatory testimonies. Her debate performance with Mike Pence was particularly significant in demonstrating the dynamics that Black women encounter in white spaces: She faced constant interruption from Pence and a white woman moderator who allowed him to continuously do so, while Harris remained poised and firm. And yet, in response, Trump called Harris a “monster” and conservatives picked apart her demeanor in the same predictable ways that Black women are always picked apart. And, when her Senate colleague David Perdue intentionally mangled her Indian name— “KAH’-mah-lah? Kah-MAH’-lah? Kamala-mala-mala? I don’t know. Whatever”—as a way to delegitimize her, my anger at Perdue felt personal. The behaviors and expectations placed upon her spotlight what many Black and brown women encounter daily, particularly if they seek power.

But I cannot ignore that Harris honed her debate skills during a long career as California’s self-proclaimed “top cop,” where she tried to have it both ways as “a prosecutor who cracked down on criminals and a reformer who wanted to lower incarceration rates,” as the Washington Post put it. While she did pursue reforms that included mandating implicit racial bias training and creating a job training program to reduce recidivism, her record is a far cry from the “progressive prosecutor” she branded herself to be during her presidential campaign: She fought to keep wrongfully convicted people in prison, refused to investgate officer shootings, criminalized truancy, blocked gender confirmation surgery for incarcerated trans inmates, and pushed legislation that endangered sex workers. These actions caused harm to countless people who are disproportionately Black and brown, suggesting that Harris is more likely to become “an intermediary around Black Lives Matter policy” as opposed to a strong champion for it, as Purdue political science professor of African American Studies Nadia Brown speculated to the Lily in August.

Nor can I, as an Indian-American, overlook the fact that Harris comes from a high-caste Brahmin family, and that my ability to see myself in her comes from a privileged place that many South Asian Americans don’t have. While Harris embraces her Indianness publicly, there is a wariness about whether she—who in 2017, welcomed far-right Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.S.—will wield her Indian identity to fight against the rise of Hindutva and the atrocities that Modi is inflicting upon Muslim, Dalit, and Adivasi communities—or use it, instead, to further legitimize him. As Sharmin Hossain, political director of South Asian human rights advocacy group Equality Labs, told ZORA Mag, “she invokes India when it is convenient.”

Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, wrote in Teen Vogue, “even amid these newsworthy accomplishments, Harris’s nomination challenges what we know about the limits of representation in U.S. politics. Despite the historic nature of her career and vice presidential nomination, we can’t lose our capacity to remain critical of her record.” I share in the skepticism of Harris’s critics and believe that we must strive towards a society that centers marginalized voices, holding all politicians accountable, regardless of their identities.

But Harris walks a tightrope, pledging to reform an overwhelmingly white system while also advancing within it. My emotions become complicated when I contemplate what her nomination means in the context of the system that we currently have–and the fact that, within the latter, as a Black woman advancing in politics, Harris is confined by standards and expectations that white politicians are not. After all, she acted, in part, under a series of punitive crime bills that Biden himself shepherded (Biden has since expressed regret over aspects of the legislation, which contributed to the mass incarceration of Black people). “She is a Black woman who was in elected office in an era when that just didn’t really happen,” Mother Jones reporter Jamilah King, who followed Harris’s career as a prosecutor, told NPR’s Code Switch. “I think it’s important to look at what she’s done in the Senate to really get a sense on who she is and how much her ideas now contradict what she did in office.”

There is cause to feel hopeful that white America’s ongoing awakening towards systematic racism will expand Harris’s abilities to enact positive change in ways she was not able to in the past. Under the Trump administration, Harris has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate: She co-sponsored a bill to block the “gay panic” defense, supports legalizing weed, has expressed regret over the truancy laws, and has released a criminal justice plan that seeks to get rid of cash bail and end private prisons. But for Wall Street, much of her appeal as Biden’s running mate is the view that Harris is a centrist who “will not push Biden to the left or the right on major policy issues,” as the head of one financial advisory group told his clients. As a Black woman, Harris walks a fine line between pushing against the system for change, and advancing her opportunity within it.

And yet, none of these moderate policies shielded Harris from the reality that, as a Black woman running for president, she was seen as a risk. “This focus on beating Donald Trump in 2020 kind of sets her up, and others deemed ‘unelectable,’ for failure,” Howard University political science professor Niambi Carter told Vox. “She is not white; she is not old; and she is not male...for those still reeling from the 2016 election, they don’t want to risk it all again on a person like Kamala Harris.” It’s no accident that out of the most diverse set of political candidates in U.S. history, with candidates more progressive than Harris, the person who won the Democratic nomination was not the one who produced a new vision for America, or offered historic representation. It was Joe Biden, a white septuagenarian centrist who, as Slate wrote, “isn’t just a literal return to a Democratic status quo; he is, at this point in his life, its oldest and least competent version.”

The identity that made Harris a risk in the presidential election, however, transformed her into an asset as a running mate. Within 24 hours of the announcement, the campaign raised $26 million. Following her debate performance against Mike Pence, the campaign raised $15 million in just over 12 hours. She wears Converse with her pantsuits. She dances to Mary J. Blige at campaign events. She is more than 20 years younger than Biden. The story of her immigrant backgrounds is inspiring. Her nomination “turned out to be a totally energizing pick for his ticket,” New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister told Slate. “He got this huge influx of cash—and, I think, a huge influx of energy and excitement.” But the message that this sends me, as a brown woman, is that our success is most valued and praised when we are in service of a white man.

All of this is a symptom of how both political parties have historically manipulated a desire for increased representation from marginalized people as a political tool to gain power and relevancy. The Republican Party has long-dismissed the idea that a person’s identity influences their politics, while actively paving the way for a white nationalist president whose very appeal was rooted in his white identity. Democrats, on the other hand, pay lip service to diversity but embrace it only to the extent that outside perspectives will not disrupt the party’s status quo. The past four years have shown us that, despite the urgency for action, Democrats are unwilling to play hardball against Republicans, consistently cow to “civility” over substance, and have failed to protect our courts. Democratic leadership often treats diversity as the answer to our current political mess, but oftentimes fail to actually pursue the policies, or support the candidates, that will bring the change those communities need. (Party leaders repeatedly dismiss progressive Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ihan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, for instance—four women of color whose agenda has helped inspire a grassroots movement—and fail to support incumbent challengers who follow in this mold.) These approaches have created an unfair expectation that marginalized people should fix the institutions that have long sought to keep them out and perpetuates the idea that these communities should be grateful to have their identities reflected at all, as if representation ends there, or as if they vote as monoliths. But in the face of scarcity, people demand more—not less. Hunger expands appetites, it does not shrink them.

While I am angry that I find myself caught up in an essentialist representation trap, Harris did not create it. As Angela Davis has explained, “it’s a feminist approach to be able to work within” the contradictions that Harris’s career presents. And within that context, like Davis, I, too, am excited by what Harris brings to the Democratic ticket. She has infused an energy into the campaign amid a crucial election that has become a fight for American democracy itself. But as historic as her nomination is, if she ascends to office, it is necessary that we view this as a starting point—not an end.

Prachi Gupta is an award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. Her first book, about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is out now via Workman Publishing.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

kinjasintheoutfield
Kinjas in the Outfield

I love this piece. Kamala Harris does bear an undue responsibility. Being the first of a marginalized group to do anything is bittersweet. You feel happy that something you’ve been denied access to is suddenly no longer impossible. You also sometimes wish it wasn’t *that* person that got to break through the glass ceiling because you start to realize what might have gotten them there and how it still might be impossible unless you follow that same path.

What a lot of people, even in the comments below, still don’t get, is that part of white privilege is being able to be an abject failure and it not being your legacy. You can be a net negative in terms of your contributions to humanity and still have monuments to your legacy. Non-white people don’t have that luxury. We’ve had 1 black president and he was/is expected to be the best black person that ever lived. That’s neither fair nor possible.

Part of fighting “soft” aspects of racism like the Talented 10th fallacy is being okay with criticisms made towards the very limited number of people of color who quote unquote made it. It’s actually kind of appalling to be white and telling an Indian woman to shut up about what she thinks about another Indian woman getting this opportunity that white people have long deprived both of them of. But what do I know? I just live in a country where bigotry is a political platform that’s gotten almost 50% of the popular vote in two major elections.