Kamala Harris' Historic Feat Remains A Gift And A Curse
Celebrating diversity appears to come at the risk of silencing continued adversity.
March 23, 2021 at 5:46 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
On Jan. 20, 2021, Senator Amy Klobuchar stood on the steps of our nation's capitol building and enthusiastically introduced our vice president-elect, proclaiming on that day, “We celebrate our first African American, first Asian American and first woman vice president, Kamala Harris.”
When Klobuchar next spoke to call Kamala Harris to be sworn in, she passionately recited her identities again, then highlighted that America’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, would swear in Harris.
What I know was meant to be the celebration of new identities of leadership also felt like a verbal commodification or monetizing of the social identities that Harris occupies. It’s as if the new vice president’s identities provided “diversity currency” the U.S. could leverage to proclaim to the world that America is not what the past year of widespread racial turmoil and gender and racial disparities among healthcare workers in COVID-19 deaths would suggest.
It also allowed us to demonstrate that a woman of color could now lead — albeit behind a white man — the “most powerful” democratic country in the world. This undermines the fact that this combination of Harris' gender and race had already been won in many other countries decades ago. Thus, what should have been a “normal” transfer of power appeared more like a joyous announcement that the vice president's office had just won the world’s first “non-male, multi-racial” Powerball lottery.
But celebrating diversity appears to come at the risk of silencing continued adversity. Progress made becomes seen as a victory rather than a symbolic concession from the white power structure. Thus, Joe Biden was introduced simply as our 46th president, not our 45th white president or our 46th male president or our oldest president. Consequently, Biden gets to simply represent America, while Harris must represent minorities and women in addition to her required duties to represent all Americans.
Two concerns turn this status as “the first” from a cause for celebration into a curse.
First, Harris must perform well because more is at stake. Suppose she performs poorly and fails to meet public expectations. In that case, her performance threatens the future white, male public trust of those whose identities Harris represents. Additionally, if she exceeds expectations, the future advancement of those identities remains non-guaranteed.
Second, the repeated celebration of her identities without the indictment of the dominance of white and male identities suggests women or women of color finally became good enough to occupy such positions of power, while the systematic racism and chauvinism that barred entry to those of Harris’ identities goes unacknowledged.
To whom much is given, much is expected. For oppressed groups in this country, becoming “the first” brings responsibilities that far exceed those of non-oppressed groups. Biden doesn’t represent “white men” or “old men” or “men from Delaware raised on the tough streets of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who still say ‘malarkey.’” Biden simply represents tradition. If Biden fails, the prospects of white men becoming president are unaffected. If Biden expresses excessive anger or emotion or declares unnecessary war, his male “hormonal balance” or testosterone levels never falls into question to explain his decision-making. This is because Biden isn’t pioneering for any single demographic in this country, except perhaps for older-aged white men.
However, the white male power structure forces Harris to prove that others in her demographic groups are capable of leading this nation. Thus, Biden must take only one oath to serve as president; Harris must take her formal oath in addition to the other symbolic oaths to the groups she represents. While her failure nearly guarantees closed doors to those attempting to follow her, success doesn’t guarantee open doors either; hence, after Obama, we returned to the white male status quo. Even after a white male like former President Donald Trump is labeled as “the worst president America has ever had” (Biden’s words, not mine), the probability of a white male — like Biden — becoming president remains almost 100%, despite several women and minorities being represented in the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee. This is most evident in the fact that of the top five Democratic candidates with the highest delegate counts, four were men, and all were white.
Lastly, Harris’ historical accomplishment alone does not right our country’s historical wrongs brought on by centuries of male chauvinism and racism against the identities that Harris occupies. Thus, the social progress that Harris’ triumph represents should not be celebrated in isolation and without the public acknowledgment of the continual practice of male chauvinism that the election of Biden symbolizes. Unlike Biden, Harris — like many of the social pioneers before her — is perennially tasked with explaining how it feels to become America’s first Black and South Asian woman to reach the ranks of vice president. Yet none of her white contemporaries or her male running mate ever have to explain the role of their identities in their continued success. Thus, prioritizing inquiries about how Harris feels about this perceived accomplishment for women and minorities situates her gender and racial identities as the obstacles to political leadership. What’s left unsaid is a reference to the masculine racial identities — male whiteness — that created or benefited from the historical exclusions women and Black people face and continue to face.
Consequently, the public narrative is only about what women and Black people have achieved and not what and why they were denied. Therefore, I ask, why are dominant groups not burdened with acknowledging their roles in the maintenance of the discrimination we in oppressed groups have endured? Did anyone ever ask Mike Pence how it felt to become the 48th consecutive white male to be elected vice president, maintaining a streak that spanned 200-plus years? The answer is a resounding no.
In no way am I suggesting we do not need to honor women and minority pioneers of change for their efforts. But as this essay’s preceding quote from the early civil rights leader, Ida B Wells, suggests, righting the chauvinist wrongs of this country isn’t accomplished by only spotlighting the identities of people, like Harris, who represent social progress, but also by equally spotlighting people, like Biden, who represents the progress that has yet to be made.
As the old adage goes, “To know where you are going, you need to know where you have been.” Thus, if we wish to see sustainable and continued change for the advancement of women and racial minorities and any other marginalized identities in this country, we must then acknowledge how unacknowledged dominant identities, like white or male, continue to contribute to the obstructions to that change. To ignore this responsibility would be — as our 45th white and 46th male president would say — a “bunch of malarkey.”
Matthew Alemu is a scholar of race, culture, and Black men and a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He is currently a research fellow with Poverty Solutions at U-M.