“Madam Vice President”: Kamala Harris Makes History

Harris’s unprecedented rise as the first woman, who is also Black and South Asian, to serve as vice president forces us to recognize a woman from a richly diverse background has been chosen to lead one of the greatest democracies in the world.

"Madam Vice President": Kamala Harris Makes History
(Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The world has never watched an election so closely, wondering whether a paralyzed America would continue to choose division.

But in so watching, the world has been brought together in a profound way: Hindus across India prayed for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, just as Jamaicans celebrated her rise. This is not just a celebration of the singular achievement of one of  “us.” It is not even a celebration for South Asian or Black communities, or even for women and their daughters everywhere.

Harris’s unprecedented rise as the first woman, who is also Black and South Asian, to serve as vice president forces us to recognize a woman from a richly diverse background has been chosen to lead one of the greatest democracies in the world. America, at least half of it, can celebrate that we have chosen the path of inclusion, diversity and hope—even if we barely managed to do so. 

By now, we have heard the story of Harris’s mother from India, and father from Jamaica, brought together by the fight for equality in the mid-century civil rights movement.

While we may now be questioning the veracity of the American Dream mythology, it has come true in this case: This daughter of immigrants, a woman of color, was able to make it to the White House. She will serve our country as not only the first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States but also the first South Asian American woman and the first woman to hold the second-highest office in the land. 

Kamala Devi Harris’s parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, met while pursuing their graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where they bonded over the civil rights movement. Her father was an economist who enjoyed a long career as a professor at Stanford University, and her mother was a cancer research scientist. They divorced when Harris was 7, and Gopalan raised her and her sister, Maya, as a single mother.

Harris’s mother ensured the girls were connected to their roots in both the South Asian and Black communities. The future vice president pursued her undergraduate studies at the historically Black Howard University, which is noted for incubating the greatest legal minds in the civil rights movement and as the founding campus of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, established in 1908 as the first Black women’s Greek-letter organization. (We can thank the Divine 9 for mobilizing voters during this contentious election cycle.)

Harris’s stunning rise began in 2003 when she was elected San Francisco district attorney, a position to which she was re-elected in 2007. She went on to clinch the state attorney general’s job in 2010 and re-election in 2014. Harris was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, where she became the second Black woman and first Indian American to serve in that chamber.

In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, she took her place among a power-packed slate of Democrat women who entered the race for president on the Democratic ticket. She suspended her campaign in late 2019, and in August, was announced as President-elect Joe Biden’s running mate. She was the first Black woman and South Asian on a major party ticket in U.S. history, and the only woman in U.S. history to be this close to becoming leader of the free world, as has been the case for several vice presidents.

Vice President Harris embodies the fight for equity—first and foremost, because she has prevailed over a system of oppression that places women of color and in Black women in particular at the margins of society.

From workplace inequality to health care disparities, the odds stacked against her in all her intersectional identities reflects why this victory is worthy of acclaim. According to a recent study by Lean In Foundation, women of color are less likely to be promoted or advance to leadership roles compared with white men and white women. For Black women, these workplace outcomes are worse than any other underrepresented ethnic group.

For women of color everywhere and for all women, she represents perseverance, resilience and triumph against all odds. In a year where we mourned the loss of Breonna Taylor to police brutality, Black women watched their communities suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus and watched in horror as the president doubled down on racism and xenophobia, and mocked other elected women of color.

Harris’s victory alongside Biden has given us a much-needed sigh of relief. While it is clear that much work needs to be done to reconcile and heal our divided nation, as mothers, sisters, aunties and friends, we do celebrate this moment.

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We celebrate that we can read our daughters and nieces the bedtime story, “Kamala’s and Maya’s Big Idea” and watch them gaze in awe learning about the playground she and her sister tirelessly built with the help of others, against the odds. We can turn on the TV the next morning and have all the girls in our worlds see an image of themselves, now grown up; an adult Kamala, helping to now rebuild American democracy and unify our country.  

As two Black women and a South Asian woman, we considered the honor it would be to tell little girls that someone who looks like them, who is them, is the vice president. They will grow up in a world where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s agenda (powered by Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent principles) of economic, political and social equity is closer to reality.

Having enjoyed eight years of a Black man, Barack Obama, as president, it’s now our turn to ascend these heights in the White House and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court and other halls of power. We can celebrate a woman who reflects two communities that are often excluded in politics: Black women and South Asian women. 

"Madam Vice President": Kamala Harris Makes History
Kamala Harris on Election Day. (@KamalaHarris / Twitter)

Now, Harris does not have a spotless record—her criminal justice record, for example, has been criticized for being overly aggressive. But we also know sexism often plays a role in our assessment of politicians, and Harris is no exception. Given the norms of the day and working under a microscope as many women do, Harris did her job as commissioned when she served as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. The times have brought on a different understanding of policing and mass incarceration. We can thank Black women like Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which has transformed our understanding of crime and punishment, and Ava DuVernay, producer of the film, “13th,” which highlights the country’s history of inequality. 

On the eve of our holiday season, preparing for the Diwali festival of lights alongside the warm glow of the White House at Christmas, we can imagine VP-elect Harris in all her intellect in the fullness of her myriad identities becoming as accepted and commonplace as the turkey pardoning on Thanksgiving. 

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About , and

Dr. Amisha Wallia is an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.
Deborah D. Douglas is a senior leader of The OpEd Project, and the author of “U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made the Movement” (Moon, 2021).
Dr. Aderonke Pederson is an instructor, psychiatrist, and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.