OPINION: What Kamala Harris’ Ascension Means for Girls of Color
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This article by Caroline Bauman and Gabrielle Birkner first appeared on Chalkbeat.org on January 19, 2020.
Across America, Black, brown, and Asian students look to the Biden administration with hope, pride, and great expectations.
As Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first African American, and the first person of South Asian descent to become US Vice President, many girls of color will be celebrating the multiple historic barriers coming down with a single oath.
In the days leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden and Harris, Chalkbeat spoke with Black, brown, and Asian teenagers about the significance of this moment. They discussed the importance of having elected officials who look like them, wondered why it took so long to get here, and told us how they plan to hold the new administration accountable. These young women also shared their wide-ranging policy priorities, including COVID relief, combatting climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and defunding the police.
Kellen Zeng, 17, Staten Island, NY
Senior, Staten Island Technical High School
I saw something on Twitter about all the vice presidents throughout the years. It’s all white men and then, all of the sudden, you see Kamala. I find that really inspiring.
I want to follow in her footsteps in a way. I’ve always had an interest in policy and advocacy and activism but I told myself: “No, you have to play it safe. You have to reach financial security.” And then there’s the whole idea that as a woman of color, you have to work twice as hard. But now, having a female vice president and seeing BIPOC women in office, I want to be able to pursue that path, too. I’d love to see the day that having a woman in office isn’t something to celebrate. It’s not a success story; it’s just a norm.
For now, there’s a lot of pressure on Biden and Harris during their first 100 days. What are they going to do about the pandemic? How are they going to help Americans who are currently unemployed? The economy is not doing the best right now, and that should be one of the priorities. Both of my parents were unemployed at the beginning of the pandemic. My dad helps out in his friends’ restaurants, and my mom has a beauty salon that wasn’t open for a long time. They are immigrants from China, and I had to help them apply for unemployment.
The most pressing thing right now is rolling back some of the damage done during the Trump presidency. A lot of LGBTQ rights were violated. I know that the fight isn’t over. Just because Biden and Harris won the election, it doesn’t mean America is great again.
Ashton Mayo-Beavers, 18, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Freshman, Mercer University in Macon, Georgia
When I moved from Tennessee to Georgia to start college last fall, I was expecting, well, another version of Tennessee.
Growing up in Knoxville and Chattanooga, I saw policies that impact women’s health designed by men. I saw a lack of representation of Black women in government. I saw police brutality and inequitable justice systems.
I still see many of those things in Georgia from my dorm room. But now, I also see Stacey Abrams. I see Kamala Harris. I see the importance of local elections, and that every single vote really does matter.
Fall of 2020 was a crazy time to start college. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that some of my classes were online and some were in person, and I had to navigate the tension of trying to focus on friends and classes while staying safe. As we were trying to prepare for our first final exams — and on top of the pandemic — there was this election. One of my professors called it the most important election of our time. For me, it was the first election I ever voted in.
On Election Day, which was more of an election month, we were told by older African American students that we shouldn’t go out. Even though Kamala Harris, a Black woman, was on the path to one of the most powerful positions in our nation, I, as a Black student, didn’t feel comfortable going to all-campus debate watch parties. I worried that the color of my skin would make me a target if tensions escalated.
Even now, I’m not sure I have processed how big it is that Kamala Harris is going to be so many firsts. For so long, I was waiting for the results to be official. I was waiting for the carpet to be dragged out from under us. It’s happened before.
No one is fully processing how big it is or how long it took. There already are so many great local leaders that are women of color, and that’s amazing. But the fact is, we will have a woman vice president who is a person of color that’s going to open the doors for so many people to envision themselves as our nation’s future.
Munaja Mehzabin, 17, Queens, New York
Senior, Academy of American Studies in Queens
Growing up South Asian, I saw brown actors and actresses while watching Bollywood movies with my parents. When it came to Hollywood films, Jasmine from “Aladdin” was the closest it came. Of course, when I was younger I didn’t think about representation, about not seeing people like me in TVs or movies. (The exceptions were side characters in stereotypical roles — a math whiz, or an owner of a gas station store.)
These days, there are more and varied roles for South Asians, and I’m extremely glad. But representation is about more than entertainment. Representation also matters when it comes to who is representing us in government.
Kamala Harris will be the first-ever South Asian vice president, even though that tends to go over people’s heads, and the first-ever African American vice president. She will also be the first-ever woman to be vice president. In this role, she is changing things for women of color. It is so important to see people who look like you make a change because it can push people to be “the next first.” Young girls can look to Kamala Harris and feel like it’s possible to have a seat in the White House. Sure, there will always be men who don’t think a woman is capable of an important job, but we must prove them wrong.
Even though Kamala Harris has accomplished something so extraordinary, she’s far from perfect when it comes to racial justice. She was previously a prosecutor, and has sometimes sided with the police. As California’s attorney general, her office fought to keep a man named George Gage behind bars even though there was evidence that he had been wrongly convicted. She also opposed a state bill that would have regulated the use of police body cameras.
As citizens, we have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to make sure they hear us. Vice President Kamala Harris will inspire others and hold open doors. I am extremely grateful for that. At the same time, I will not glorify her.
Brooklyn Cauley, 16, Rockwall, Texas
Sophomore, Rockwall High School
I live in a predominantly white community and attend a predominantly white school, where I’m a National Honor Society student and participate in several clubs. I’m the only Black girl and the only Black person on my robotics team. I used to mentor a younger robotics team, and I felt like I was showing others that Black girls — and girls in general — can excel in STEM. That’s a big, progressive step.
In a political office, where there is not that much diversity, Kamala Harris’ win is a big thing. It shows that people are moving forward. It’s making a change. Our voices are being heard.
Biden talks about raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. This increase would bring so many people out of poverty in the U.S. This could help make so many Black communities better.
I also hope they get more vaccines out, and they actually focus on the coronavirus. [President Trump] made a joke out of it. I know a lot of kids at school don’t believe that the virus is dangerous. I’m also in the agriculture program at school, and a lot of the students tend to be big Trump supporters, which is fine. I’m not judging anyone based on their political views. We are required to wear masks to school, but a lot of students don’t keep it up over their nose. Some won’t even wear them at all when school staff is not around.
Biden’s message at the inauguration should be something like: I know the country hasn’t been the greatest this past year. I know we have had a lot of racial issues, but we can persevere. A lot of people are struggling financially with job losses, and some are struggling mentally. We can’t just break away and say, we hate this person or that person. We have to come together to fix these issues. They are not going to be resolved by violence or fighting with our neighbor. I believe we need to pray more.
Sharona Nagamuthu, 17, Queens, New York
Junior, Scholars Academy in Queens
When the election was called for Biden and Harris, I was sleeping because [since Election Day] I was staying up until ridiculous hours of the night, glued to my TV. I checked my phone at about 11 a.m., and all of my friends were texting me: “Oh my God. They won.” It was an instant sense of relief. It had been this whole week; it was this whole long process. I’d be in my classes online, and I’d have another tab with the news open just so I could keep myself updated. After I heard, I actually went back to sleep — that’s how relieved I was, that I could finally sleep.
It was a relief because it showed me that this state that we’re in right now hopefully won’t always continue to exist, and we can ultimately improve on our lives and — especially, as a person of color — that new policies can be enacted that will help me and many others.
I’m an immigrant from Guyana. My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 2. [Through YVote], I’ve done a lot of research on immigration policies, and we know the Trump administration has enacted a lot of policies that have impacted immigrants negatively — the travel ban from some Middle Eastern countries and countries in Africa and also the construction of the southern border wall. I know the border wall has done a lot of environmental damage. To add onto that, I’d also like to see policies that combat climate change. I think it’s kind of ridiculous that you have people who don’t recognize that climate change is real when scientists are literally proving it, and you can see the impacts in our life.
Melanie Gonzalez Castillo, 19, Newark, New Jersey
Freshman, Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania
As a feminist, I am happy a woman is becoming vice president in the U.S. for the first time. This inspires me. Kamala Harris’ parents were immigrants to this country. I moved to New Jersey from Mexico when I was 14 years old. This gives me hope for me and for my future children.
I have been watching old interviews with Kamala, and she said that DACA recipients — undocumented young people, brought to the U.S. as children — come here believing in the democracy of the United States, and it’s beautiful to see them trust in this democracy.
A lot of people don’t trust in this country right now.
With everything that happened in the Capitol this month, I’ve been thinking more about what it means to believe in democracy. Throughout history, a lot of negative things have happened in this country, but it is my second home and has given me much. Yet people from this nation are the ones tearing it apart.
It’s so disturbing to see what this has come to, but I do have a lot of hope for the future. I have hope because of my dad, who came to this country and works hard every day. He taught me how important the work ethic is when paired with honesty and positivity. I have hope when I think about my sister, who is about to graduate college with a psychology degree.
Even though there’s still a lot to be done, and many things we must change, I have hope when I think about the generations that will come after me. They won’t think of it as revolutionary to have a woman in the White House. I hope the new generation grows up in a world where they can see equality and opportunity as something normal — not something they have to tirelessly fight for. It is up to each of us to create that change.
Ama Russell, 17, Detroit
Senior, Cass Technical High School
When I heard Biden and Harris had won, I was with my 92-year-old grandma, so it was a really big deal. She didn’t think we’d have Barack Obama [in her lifetime], so it was special to share the moment with her.
Later that day, organizers in Detroit held a Count Every Vote action, celebrating that we got Trump out and gearing up to hold the Biden-Harris administration accountable. We were very excited because Detroit, and most importantly its Black voters, carried Michigan [for Biden].
Holding the Biden-Harris administration accountable means they are centering Black people in their policy, making sure that people don’t think that just because we got Trump out that injustices are solved. We will put pressure on them to do more for environmental issues and more for social justice, that we are pushing them to defund the police and to push the envelope to liberate Black people. Representation is important, but it’s not enough.
Before Biden chose Kamala Harris, there was talk that he was going to pick a Black woman as his running mate. When my father announced it was Kamala, I was like, “Oh, yay,” even though I really wanted it to be my girl Stacey Abrams. It was Stacey Abrams who ultimately made it possible for Democrats to win back the Senate. I think it’s important to honor her and all of the Black organizers who made space for Kamala.
For young girls, like myself, Kamala will make them see themselves in American politics. It will make them feel like they belong, in some sense, and see that they can do this. This isn’t a “when pigs fly” kind of thing. This is something achievable, it’s attainable, and it’s not something that has to happen in the next century. This is something I can do now.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
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