Kamala Harris: A Symbol of Hope or Tokenism?

Lucy Rowan

The 20th of January 2021 marked not only the appointment of the USA’s 46th President but the beginning of a new era. After four years of outlandish lies and discriminatory policies, minority groups across America could finally breathe a sigh of relief as Trump finally left the White House. Although Trump has vowed that he will be returning in the future, for now, America is in the hands of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. 

Whether a fan of Harris’s politics or not, her candidacy and nomination for the second-highest office in America is undeniably iconic. It represents much more than a victory for the Democratic Party, but an evolution of attitudes. Not only is Harris the first woman to be appointed as Vice President, but she is also the first woman of colour. Therefore, the 20th of January marked a day in history. One that was full of hope. 

However, Harris’s endeavours date back further than the 2020 Presidential Election. She has already paved her way as a leader in her own right as Attorney General of California and later as the US Senator from California. Born to a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother, Harris’s success throughout her political career encapsulates the American dream’s true meaning. She has paved the way for many other women, especially women of colour, who will follow after her. As her mother famously recited to her:

“You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last”.

In her election campaign, Harris stated:

“I believe our country wants and needs some leadership that provides a vision of the country in which everyone could see themselves”.

A month after her being in office, she has continued the narrative that she feels an onus to represent the communities that she represents. Accordingly, I spoke to five women of colour to determine what Harris’s appointment as VP meant to them and whether they felt represented by her.

“Though it was painful how close it was, Kamala Harris becoming VP is proof that after four years of overt misogyny and racism, most people in our country will not be swayed. Her example will help other women get their deserved promotions and will help make women/PoC in leadership the norm. This glass ceiling should've been shattered earlier but also, there was no better time than after four years of that monstrosity to show that the majority of this nation thoroughly rejects it”. Eyasha, 24, USA

“On Wednesday 20th January 2021, the lives of women across the world changed forever. For the first time in history, a woman had been inaugurated as the vice-president of the United States of America. A spell had been broken and a beacon of hope shone through. Throughout history, women have fought to be given a seat at the table and until now, it has always been a case of ‘she was so close but...’’

At the time of Vice President Harris’s victory, I’ll be honest and say that I couldn’t quite believe it. It was so surreal and I felt so many different emotions at once. I was immensely proud of Harris, it felt a bit like an auntie had won the lottery. I was in a state of shock because all my life there has been ‘talk’ of women leading from the front and now it’s finally happening. There was also a great sense of sadness because it took us until 2021 to achieve this. Whilst Kamala Harris becoming VP of the United States is a momentous achievement of great joy, at the heart of it is the struggle and pain of every woman who had fought before her.

For me, a black woman in her early 20s who has always been active in politics and dabbles with the thought of becoming a politician one day, Kamala Harris becoming VP of the United States represents resilience. Ms Harris initially ran for President of the U.S. but later decided to drop out. Despite this, Ms Harris persevered and bounced above where she fell. This has been a huge motivator to me especially because I do believe that my success and the success of other women of colour is dependent on whether we see people who look like us leading from the front”. Onyinye, 22, UK

“It's really good news to see a woman of colour in the American office since they've never had one before and it seemed like they were very sexist towards Hillary Clinton in the past. I do feel a bit like it was probably way easier to get a female vice president elected than a president though. 

Kamala Harris was a huge victory for women of colour but I don't actually support what she's done politically, like I remember she's fought to keep people in prison such as Daniel Larsen. I'm still waiting for a female president, I hope it's AOC! Because I prefer her politics”. Bethan, 26, UK

“One look at Kamala Harris’s history can suggest she is far more alike to her White Male predecessors than one would instantly assume. Her prosecutor record, hypocrisy on marijuana legalisation and militant approach to backing the Israeli occupation land theft and genocide of Palestine is an example of this. All the while, she is responsible for deliberately keeping mostly African American people incarcerated and serving beyond their jail sentences for drug-related offences. I am not confident about her influencing any change in the White House. She benefits from the very system that makes it so hard for women who look like her to succeed in the first place.

It is quite frankly insulting to ethnic minorities that the world should assume we are not afforded the same diversity of thought and ability to critically analyse members of our own community as everyone else. It is shameful that people think ‘representation’  is enough when I personally do not see myself in this woman at all. Her policies violently stigmatise Black and Brown people at home and abroad. People shouldn’t be so quick to support a woman who upholds the prison industrial complex under the guise of ‘representation’”. Yas, 23, UK 

“So my professional career this far has been in high finance; working with high profile investment bankers, hedge fund managers etc. In my four years in the field, I was often the only woman AND person of colour to be in the room. Sometimes if I got lucky, there would be a white woman in the room. The lack of representation at the senior level disheartened me on so many levels, and the lack of mentorship opportunities also contributed to my decision to leave the field.

It's sad because corporate America exerts so much influence over the public discourse in the states. But having Kamala now in such a position of power (in addition to AOC, Warren etc.), has provided personal comfort that the public is more accepting of people like me; women of colour with ambition and drive”. Natalie, 26, USA

From these five responses, it’s clear there are mixed feelings about Harris sitting as Vice President in one of the world’s most influential offices. Some feel hopeful, whereas others feel more sceptical. There seems to be an unsettling suspicion that her ethnicity is being used more as a token rather than insight into how to influence policy that really benefits ethnic minorities. I’m sure we will all be watching intently to see how she delivers on her promises to represent women and people of colour. Let’s hope she doesn’t disappoint.

Illustration by Romina Karegar

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