Kamala Harris’ vice-presidency will go on record for the glass ceilings of gender and colour she broke through. Ironically as the world salutes her for this remarkable feat, in the years to come she will be judged time and again on the very factors she sought to overcome.
The drama began even before she assumed the highest government office ever held by a woman in US history with Vogue’s controversial February cover.
The depiction of America’s vice-president in casual attire and sneakers was viewed as disrespectful of her office as well as dismissive of her historic achievement as a woman, and a woman of colour. There were also questions over lighting, considering Harris’s skin tone.
While Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, defended the choice of the casual look as a way to make a connection in tumultuous times and said it was not meant to diminish the incredible achievement, she didn’t comment on the lighting. But given the backlash it received, the magazine announced it would publish a limited print edition of the February issue with a new photo of Harris agreed upon by her team.
Why the entire hullabaloo about her clothing? Sources say that the cover with Harris was meant to send a message to young people of colour about possibilities. So, casual attire was definitely not the right choice. Also in the background was Vogue’s track record of how it has photographed people of colour, a fact that Wintour previously acknowledged.
Is this much ado about nothing and should Vogue be given the benefit of the doubt? Yes, if you believe that the first woman vice president of the United States, who also was a former attorney general of California, should be represented in a casual manner. What are the chances that a man in that position would be depicted that way? But it’s a stereotype that society has often found the need to cling to when it comes to powerful women.
I’d also be surprised if it wasn’t the advice Harris received during the VP campaign as well – to present a softer and more affable ‘womanly’ side.
It’s as though women achievers have to prove their womanhood along with their achievements. And that’s unfair!
All successful people have had to make huge personal sacrifices, yet women are judged for the choices they make. Yes, women can be successful but not without being made to feel guilty about having to choose between home and career. It’s an age-old stereotype that we have still not managed to overcome.
No one can have it all! Behind every successful man is a self-sacrificing woman, so why is it wrong when roles are reversed?
No doubt Kamala Harris will be the inspiration for girls, and especially people of colour, to fulfill their dreams. But it is equally important to acknowledge the personal sacrifice it must have taken for her to get there. Families too will have to make the decision to support their women’s careers just Kamala’s did if they are to succeed.
Let us also hope doors she opened will remain unlocked for women and people of colour.
Veiled racism is one of the hardest barriers to overcome because it does not openly reveal itself. Yet Harris will be expected to go the extra mile in the fight to make America equal. In fact she might find the Black and South Asian tags she wore on the campaign trail difficult to live down. Harris’ biracial identity already sowed seeds of discord as some Indian-Americans felt her South Asian roots didn’t receive as much attention as her Jamaican heritage. Questions were also raised about Harris playing up the Black card to get more votes. Black Americans on the other hand doubted whether she was Black enough, given that her Indian mother was a huge influence on her life.
These assumptions and expectations are bound to influence perceptions of her success in the vice-presidential role. Her mixed heritage might also cause a personal tug-of-war depending on how she views herself.
But in an age when we are expected to rise above gender and race, we remain hopeful that her legacy will be viewed objectively. Perhaps she will pave the way for America to truly become the melting pot it professes to be and not a country of racial prejudice.
Whatever she does, we can be certain that for the next four years the US vice presidency will be in the spotlight, like never before. All because Kamala Devi Harris is a woman, and a South Asian and Black woman to top it all!!!