She may be a child of immigrants living the American Dream, but Kamala Harris is not the role model of interracial solidarity that many South Asian and South Asian-American women want her to be.
Being a woman of color in Trump’s America is exhausting.
This year marks the centennial of the constitutional amendment that let American women (functionally, white American women) vote. It is a bittersweet milestone for many African-American women. On the one hand it is time to celebrate the crucial political and intellectual labours of Black women like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Frances Watkin Harper, and Mary Church Terrell who are too often left out of the narrative of American women’s history. On the other hand, the next hundred years of voting don’t look too bright. The memories of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are fresh. Many voters were planning on mailing in their ballots for this fall’s election, but we are now watching the President’s lackey systematically dismantle the US Postal Service. And as we all watch the rise of fascistic and authoritarian governments across the world, it feels almost ironic to celebrate the historic expansion of the right to vote.
We need a happy story about U.S. politics!
And that is what Kamala Harris seems to promise for women of color.
There are two stories everyone seems to want to tell about Kamala Harris: the child of immigrants who rose to power, and the living embodiment of South Asian’s antiracism. But a quick look behind the headlines shows she is neither. Let’s look at each story in turn.
First, she is cast as a child of immigrants who lives out the American Dream, going “From India and Jamaica to the doors of the White House in one generation.” Hard work and individual ‘grit’ and dedication to social justice raise her from (implied) humble beginnings to the heights of power. It doesn’t seem to matter that her humble origins are actually not that humble; that her Indian grandfather was a career civil servant who served as Under Secretary in the colonial Ministry of Transport and Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Rehabilitation in the Indian government; or that her mother immigrated as part of an elite group of students who were able to enter the United States before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the 100-person cap on Indian immigration to the U.S.
More than three-quarters of the Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. the year Kamala Harris’s mother came were agricultural labourers. Their children might be cast in the feel-good stories about rising through hard work and grit alone, but Kamala Harris’s upper-caste Indian background and powerful relatives do not allow her to be cast in this role. These realities get in the way of good story-telling. We’d rather celebrate the U.S. as the Land of Opportunity than examine how caste privilege presents translates in the U.S. context.
Then there is the second narrative: Kamala Harris as the emblem of South Asians’ affinity for social justice. This is perhaps most prevalent among Indian Americans and the more woke Indian feminists. We want her to represent the affinity between Indian Americans and the global Black freedom struggle. Because her parents met during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and because by all accounts, her mother was invested in social justice (and even her high-ranking diplomat grandfather dedicated much of his career working on refugee resettlement in India and Zambia), we want her to be the living proof that regular Indians are on the right side of history in the struggle to make Black Lives Matter.
We want her to embody the principles of Afro-Asian solidarity we study in history texts or that we aspire to enact in our own lives. This desire lets us put aside the inconvenient truths of how her career was built on the backs of poor Black and brown people. She famously sponsored a truancy law that jailed parents whose children were found to be absent from school without ‘good reason.’ This is the sort of policy making that gave us the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s also the kind of thinking that turns poor children’s schools into mini-prisons whose main job is to warehouse them away from harmful influences until they are old enough to work, instead of actually preparing them for a future of self-determination. Kamala Harris is not the social justice warrior either the angry right or woke liberals want her to be. She did not use her leadership position as Attorney General of California to call for transparency and police accountability, even as the Black Lives Matter movement swelled across the country after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Kamala Harris’s career is not a trajectory for South Asians who want to be in solidarity with Black women and other women of colour in the U.S. or across the world.
If we are looking for a common sense narrative that explains Kamala Harris’s rise to power, it cannot be the American Dream or even the South Asian American dream. Her career trajectory is actually an embrace of what we used to call the model minority myth; the idea that the achievements of some minorities (whether they are high-performing undocumented immigrants or highly educated, affluent Black people like the Obama family) are proof that our education system and political infrastructure are not rigged against poor Black and Brown people, and also proof that the people who aren’t able to rise through the ranks of this fictitious meritocracy are the problem and not centuries of systematic dispossession and disfranchisement.
Kamala Harris’ career shows us how, if we use our privileges correctly, play by the rules, don’t scare white people by making radical claims (for example, that poor Black people matter every bit as much as any wealthy person); if we are willing to put our smiling ‘diverse‘ faces as stamps of approval on white supremacist policies, we too can be the face of white supremacist mass incarceration. Kamala Harris, as the California attorney general, repeatedly defied a 2011 US Supreme Court order to reduce the prisoner population in California’s prisons. Kamala Harris and her team filed motions which were seen as obstructionist and in bad faith and were indicative of her reliance on the prison and carceral justice.
To hold up Kamala Harris as a role model for young girls is to teach them that their humanity is a function of their capacity to dehumanise others. And what’s more, we don’t need her! We already have a plethora of progressive South Asian American, immigrant, and second-generation sheroes to emulate. We have Kshama Sawant (didn’t your amma have that same curtain somewhere in her house?), Pramila Jayapal (the only aunty I fear), Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib to be role models for our political aspirations. These are women of colour who see their freedom bound in the freedom of everyone else. They are not willing to pave their way to power by sacrificing the futures of Black and Brown boys and girls. We shouldn’t either.
Vineeta is a teacher and student of black feminist epistemology and critical anti-racist pedagogies (not necessarily in that order). She completed her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego in 2018 and is trying to put that training to good use wherever she can. She can be found on Twitter.
Featured Image Source: LATimes.com