On 11 August, Joe Biden, America’s Democratic leader, chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate for the forthcoming US presidential elections. While the announcement of the news has evoked mixed responses, Harris’ new job is undeniably historic. She is the first Black woman and first Asian-American in a major party presidential ticket – the key word here is first.
It brings into question the contested views of Black women in leadership and whether or not Harris’ nomination could be a strategic political ploy to win votes. Donna Kate Rushin’s poem, The Bridge, explores the exhaustion that many Black women feel in having to step up to be ‘the bridge’, the person tasked with connecting different party viewpoints.
“Nobody Can talk to anybody Without me, Right?
Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip”
In the pinnacle of racial reckoning for America and other parts of the world, Kamala Harris could not have arrived at a better time. As the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, her background has been an unarguable talking point both prior to her new role and now; she could well be the “bridge” that the Democrats need, bringing generational and racial diversity to the party. She represents a young and multi-cultural version of Democratic politics. Whether we like it or not, her skin has played some form of conscious or unconscious impact in her nomination. The death of George Floyd has heightened the necessity of enlisting a Black woman in the role and her appointment highlights the absence of Black female representation in leadership and politics. For Black women, she symbolises a section of the population in America who have never seen themselves in politics.
Harris’ nomination may be in part political play, but Black women in politics need better representation, and she is an excellent candidate, with the required skills and experience, in addition to an understanding of the views of the Black community. Her blackness may have been a factor in why she is there, but the point is that she is there at all – she more than deserves to be. Regardless of whether you align with the party or not, the boundary-breaking former prosecutor is fully equipped to do this job, irrespective of her skin colour. When Black women are given a seat at a table, while we can acknowledge the added intersectionality that comes with their appointment, the conversation needs to go beyond their race. Doing so detracts from their skill and competency; instead we must recognise and celebrate their genuine contributions. We may never be able to agree on politics, but highlighting the achievements and abilities of Black women is a mark towards equity and fairer representation and this is exactly what Kamala Harris signifies.
Women in leadership may as well be translated as ‘white women in leadership’. Recent reports of female solutions to covid-19 revealed exactly what I always envisioned and experienced female leadership to look like typically in the West. Who does the saving of covid-19 doesn’t matter to me; this pandemic must be beaten. Nevertheless, the images of all white women in leadership did create a clear view of what female governance looked like and it looked overwhelmingly white. For Harris and many other Black women, their identities remain the centre of attack; they are frequently misconstrued and tarnished. Police recently stopped UK MP Dawn Butler in what she later identified as racial profiling. This came after she was forced to close her Brent office because of racist verbal abuse and threats of violence.
Only 12 of the 220 women elected in UK parliament are Black. To suggest that that white women have been the voices of all women is no understatement. Harris’ nomination represents an opportunity for Black women to have someone in power that embodies at least some of their experiences.
Black female leaders do more than create diverse leadership; they provide inclusion in policy-making processes, from micro to macro levels. As Kamala Harris herself put it, "You have to see and smell and feel the circumstances of people to really understand them." As a Black woman who began my career in politics and international development, I never felt that I belonged. I never felt understood because no one tried to.
Biden has made a very definitive statement in recognising the need for Black women in politics – in Harris, he has anointed an heir. At 77, he is the oldest major party nominee in US history and has described himself as a transitional figure. Harris is the person he wants to succeed him in office. Her appointment must be taken as more than political strategy, and a reminder of the wealth of experience that Black women possess. Black women in all their diverse, nuanced, individual identities are qualified, capable, and have every reason to be ambitious. Pinpointed as problematic, discussed, analysed, shamed, and tamed, women of colour in leadership roles automatically attracts criticism. Until we normalise Black women's success by seeing the value in the wealth of experience, white supremacy will continue.
If Harris is inaugurated, she carries with her the history of named and nameless women who have paved the way for Black women and continue to. In a speech at Essence, she said: “The fight of Black women has always been grounded in faith and belief in what’s possible... That’s why Sojourner spoke. It’s why Mae flew. It’s why Rosa and Claudette sat. It’s why Maya wrote. It’s why Fannie organised. It’s why Shirley ran. And why I stand here as a candidate for President of the United States.”
It’s why we like to see this: Black women leading.
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