What Vice President Kamala Harris' Win Means to Me

"As Harris takes her place on the world stage I know that I too will be seen."

Kamala-Harris-Headshot
Photo: United States Senate

Vice President Kamala Harris. Oh what sweet, sweet words. She is a boatload of firsts. First woman vice president. First Black vice president. First Black woman vice president. And first Asian. Then there are the secondary firsts — a milestone trickle-down effect, so to speak — first stepmom to be vice president, first of Jamaican ancestry, first graduate of a historically Black university, and so on. But what does all of this mean?

In some ways it means nothing. Harris' win will not close the Black women's pay gap. Black women make, on average, 63 cents on the dollar compared to white, non-Hispanic men, according to the U.S. Census. (Latinas fare even worse at 55 cents.) All women on average make 82 percent of what white men earn in a year, according to the American Association of University Women. What about the fact that Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women? No, her win doesn't change that either. It also doesn't change the fact that police kill Black women at higher rates than women of any other race.

Yet, Harris' win also means everything. Because it means a powerful and positive narrative of a Black woman — a Black and Asian woman, to be exact — that the whole world will be able to look up to and even imitate. And narratives win over hearts and minds. And when the American public's sentiments shift about an issue that's when concrete change happens.

I can speak to the power of this personally. I'm very close to Kamala Harris' demographic.

I was born in New York City in 1980: the second child of a Black American father and a Filipino mother. My sister, who's seven years older, looks like me. The next Black and Filipino person I met was when I was 18 and in college. I was thrilled. Multiracialism was not a thing. So much so that I have a dim memory at around 4-years-old of learning that my mother's race was Asian. I had assumed she was white.

As Harris takes her place on the world stage I know that I too will be seen. As a child, the very basis of my racial identity required constant explanation and discussion. For example, "What's your background?" or "Where are you from?" were some of the first things people always said when meeting me. It resulted in a profound self-consciousness. But today, the questions come much more rarely, and the simple absence of having to explain myself all the time is liberating. Brain space and emotional space I didn't even realize I was using are suddenly free.

And existing within two races is such a gift. Growing up it felt like a disadvantage. My Blackness was something I had to prove. "Are you Black?" children would sometimes ask me. To see Harris claimed by both races makes me hold my head higher. And now, being of two races is starting to seem normal. A few weeks ago I watched an Instagram video of Harris making Indian food with comedian Mind Kaling. I watched it again... and again, thrilled to see her being accepted, nay embraced, by the South Asian community and for it to be visible to all. Her elevation is also further galvanizing and drawing attention to Asian voters, who've historically had low voter turnout.

The best part of having the first Black, first Asian, first woman vice president is how her race and gender will just fade into the background.

But while Barack Obama's election already proved that Black Americans as individuals could achieve the nation's highest office, Vice President Kamala Harris' victory is also a win for Black institutions. Black colleges and universities can now be recognized for graduating leaders to our country's highest offices. President Obama was raised in the multi-racial mix of Hawaii and Indonesia and has Ivy League degrees. Harris grew up in a Black neighborhood in Berkeley, California. She was bused. Then she went to Howard University, widely considered one of the best historically Black universities in the country. Dubbed the "Mecca," the Washington, D.C.-based school has also been painfully underfunded but received a $40 million grant — the largest gift from a single donor in the HBCU's history — from Mackenzie Scott (previously Bezos) in July 2020. Whether Scott's generosity was a result of the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the nation this year or because she had an inkling that Harris might be picked as Biden's VP might never be known, but I'd like to believe that the Harris factor played a role.

And Black sororities can now be recognized as the power centers that they've always been. Harris' early boost, her rallies drawing thousands and thousands were due largely in part to her national network of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters. I've actually heard a white female politician complaining that Harris had an unfair advantage by being a member of the sorority. After centuries of white people fighting bitterly to maintain the all or near-all whiteness of their social clubs, it feels powerful, for once, for whites to want access to this formidable, but historically marginalized, group of Black women. (For Black women who did not attend Black universities but now want to connect, the AKAs, like other Black fraternal organizations, do accept new adult members.)

For women more broadly — because being the first female vice president, of any race or ethnicity, is a huge win too — Vice President Harris is a thrilling and powerful story of personal accomplishment. She stands firmly atop the national stage on her own and not in the shadow of a powerful husband.

Incidentally, Harris' husband, Douglas Emhoff, a prominent entertainment lawyer whom she married in 2014, is also in a position to set a new norm for men as a non-working spouse of a powerful woman. Emhoff took a leave of absence from his law firm when Harris was selected by President-Elect Biden to join his ticket. (It's typical for spouses of vice presidents to not work; Jill Biden was and will be a notable exception.) I can't wait to see how the first second gentleman of the United States will perform his ceremonial duties. Such a powerful example for dual-income couples and all of our children. (Incidentally, Emhoff will also be the first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president.)

Ultimately the best part of having the first Black, first Asian, first woman vice president is how her race and gender will just fade into the background. Eventually, we'll all get used to it. New norms will settle in and it won't need to be discussed and dissected.

And then one day, when the first woman becomes president, she'll have less explaining to do.

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Christina Lewis is a social entrepreneur and journalist. She is a founder of All Star Code and Give Blck and is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer. You can find her life and opinions on Instagram @thechristina99.

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