Kamala Harris: representation, reputation and imperfect role models

Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, licenced under Creative Commons License
Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, licenced under Creative Commons License

As Kamala Harris took the oath to become Vice-President of the USA she became the first woman and the first person of colour in this role. After four years of racism and division under the previous administration the significance of this moment is immense. People are inspired by her, what she represents and the role model she is. This is no quick fix, though, and it’s not unanimous. There are plenty of people who criticise her for her past. The question is: is she being held to different standards because she is the first? Are we quicker to criticise and pick at trailblazers? And are role models always perfect?

Her-story

Kamala Harris acknowledges history and those who have come before her to fight for equality. She released a video on the morning of the inauguration:

She often talks about her parents: her mother, an immigrant from India and her Jamaican father, who made a life in the USA. Her story inspires children of immigrants and people around the world.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CKRgiTNFWMR/

When she spoke after being elected in November 2020 social media was flooded with photos of young girls watching her on TV as she said I hope every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.

With the pandemic throwing the world into crisis her messages for the future, for children and for society give so many people hope. She shows that there is a positive future ahead to strive for.

For me, this feels especially poignant. My grandmother’s name was Kamala. I’m sure she never could have imagined someone with her name becoming Vice-President of the USA.

Kamala Kanjilal, photo credit: Mo Kanjilal
Kamala Kanjilal, photo credit: Mo Kanjilal

The imperfections

That’s the inspirational story. Dig deeper and you find that Kamala Harris is criticised for her criminal justice past. In fact, her record is full of contradictions. An article in Vox said:

“A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent.”

Vox, August 2020

Her early career choices define her for so many. Becoming a prosecutor meant aligning herself with a fundamentally biased system. She says she decided to become a prosecutor because she wanted to change things from within the system. A social media commentator said “we do need to hold her accountable but we also need to support her being in that role by recognising the obstacles she faced to get there.”

She acknowledges her stance has changed on many issues. She has become a spokesperson for criminal justice reform and she fights for racial justice.

And surely, despite the things you don’t like about her past, she’s better than the previous administration? Or is it actually the case that people who forge a new path are held to very different standards? Cynthia Nixon, actress and activist, released a video showing the contradictions and almost impossible task women face.

Of course, people who trailblaze bear a responsibility for their actions, which Kamala Harris is not exempt from. In truth, no role models are perfect, and it’s not what you look like that makes you a role model. We have Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak here in the UK. They are not role models at all to many of us:

Here’s the thing though. Since being elected Kamala Harris has shown how she is different. She is not boastful, showy or divisive. She shares her victories, often quoting others, and she inspires many.

She has handled tough situations along the way. After the debate between her and Mike Pence many reports were about whether she is likeable. Most ignored the fact that during that debate she was interrupted constantly. She handled this by smiling, and coining the now famous ‘I’m speaking’ phrase. Women are interrupted more than men and it takes strength to handle this carefully. Which she did.

More from this writer:

The future

Kamala Harris is not perfect as a role model. But to ignore the significance of her in this role feels like something only those who have never experienced discrimination have the luxury to do. Surely we now need to see what she does before we judge her?

The debate about her was actually summed up at the inauguration ceremony by the poet Amanda Gorman in a scene-stealing performance:

“And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to form a union with purpose.”

There is a lot of work for this administration to do to heal a nation. For us in the UK, we can only watch with envy and hope.

Follow @SussexBylines on social media