Harris’s Diverse Heritage Is a Win for Representation

Kamala Harris Diverse Heritage Is a Win for Representation
Kamala Harris, “a Black, Indian-American woman, is poised to occupy the second-highest office in our country. For the first time, millions of Americans are witnessing themselves represented in a way we’ve never seen before.” (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Less than 24 hours after Joe Biden’s announcement that Kamala Harris would join him on the Democratic ticket, the pundits are furiously churning out predictions of what a Biden-Harris win would mean for our economy, democracy and culture. Those hot takes are predictable in their scope of policy choices past and present and which voters will or won’t be swayed by her.

One thing missing from the think pieces and social media musings is something I’m sure many Black and Brown women have noticed—that Harris is the most diverse person to ever achieve this level of political stature. A Black, Indian-American woman is poised to occupy the second-highest office in our country.

For the first time, millions of Americans are witnessing themselves represented in a way we’ve never seen before. Of course honor must be paid to Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferraro. But for women of Asian descent, like myself, there has never been anyone— regardless of sex—who has made it as far as Harris. The fact that it is a woman who is both Black and Brown is worthy of its own moment.

In elementary school, I vividly recall the moment my own White House dreams were crushed. In sharing our ideal jobs with the class, I nonchalantly said I wanted to be president.

The class erupted in laughter—both the boys and the girls. The class bully immediately shouted out, “You can’t be president!” and I looked to my teacher, sure she would shoot him down.

It didn’t seem odd at all to me to pick what seemed like the best job in the country, having been raised by a feminist mother who supported our family—including my stepfather—with her income and instilled in me that ambition was of the highest virtue. The fact that I was Pakistani wasn’t something I’d realized was an issue—other than the fact that my name and skin tone didn’t match the vast majority of my Pacific Northwest peers.

The teacher cleared her throat. “Unfortunately Billy is right, you can’t be president because you were born in a different country.”

My cheeks blazed with embarrassment as Billy smugly looked on.

Through the years, that exchange would stay with me. Yes, it’s absolutely true that an immigrant like myself can’t be president—but the underlying message that stayed with me, reinforced in my years both covering politics as a reporter and then immersed in them in various advocacy organizations, was that people in the highest positions of power weren’t like me. They weren’t people of color. They weren’t women. There were welcome challenges to this as our country continued its non-linear (and not at all finished) journey toward a truly representative democracy: Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton. But at that level, no combination of the two.

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No doubt we will witness the same sexism as Clinton’s candidacy, where supporters of hers who happen to be women were told it was inappropriate to vote for someone only because they are a woman. Despite the fact that those usually saying this share the traits of 44 of our 45 presidents, there is some amount of truth to that argument.

I am not excited about Harris’s ascension only because she is a woman of color or because of our shared heritage (Pakistan used to be part of India; look it up).

I am excited because what she fights for—racial equity in housing and pandemic relief, economic justice for the poor and middle class, humanity in our immigration policy—reflect my values. Values that I find are more commonly shared among women of color—not hard to see given 54 percent of white voters went for Trump, who actively rages against anything resembling equity or compassion.

Progress is full of fits and starts, and massive swings in the pendulum that have us going from the first Black president to one who is a white nationalist. It can feel overwhelming and heartbreaking and impossibly frustrating.

But if you look closely, we still move forward in important ways even as we go backward in others.

Our president is a proud misogynist; yet our Congress is the most diverse in history.

LGBTQ rights are under attack; yet there are more trans people in office than ever.

We will not elect a woman president in 2020; yet we have the most diverse Democratic ticket in history.

The wins may seem small when judged against the losses, but with time and tenacity, we can—and will—move the needle in favor of a more just, equitable and representative country.


Saadia Van Winkle (McConville) is a writer and former television journalist. She currently runs communications for several economic justice and policy organizations.