Courtersy- Los Angeles Times

Kamala Harris and the Magnificent Burden of being the First

There is a flurry of activity on my Family Whatsapp group. Someone has unearthed a distant connection with a second cousin’s chitti. Someone else has recognized the lady in the traditional Madisar, the nine yard saree- the maternal grandmother, from a photograph the internet. The family trees are being shaken, waiting for the fruits to fall.

Kamala Harris, the American Vice -President elect has been claimed by not just by my extended Tamil Brahmin clan, but also immigrants, Black Women, Asian women and Indian-American women as ‘one of their own’. The good citizens of Thulasendrapuram, in Tamilnadu, now known as Kamala Harris’s ancestral village, have woken up to their long lost daughter. From Madras to Montreal, there is a buzz of excitement, a sense of being witness to something great and wondrous. There is nothing special about yet another well- off white male becoming the American President but there is something magical about the FIRST woman Vice President in USA since 1789! When she is also the FIRST African American woman, the FIRST Asian woman and a FIRST generation immigrant to hold the high office of power, the magic multiplies.

When one of our own becomes a shining star, we want some of the stardust to rub off onto us. Our hearts thrum with a vicarious delight and our eyes thrill with visions of a bright brilliant future. We dream about the vast opportunities that will open up for the rest of the community. We cannot be what we cannot see, we tell each other. Now that there is a visible symbol of what is possible, we believe that we have acquired the key to a door that had been shut to us for so long.

There are many Firsts who have opened the door and shown the way. The first female doctor, the first female pilot, the first African American President- all have been pioneers in their own way. They have made it despite not having any similar role models, they have made it despite the odds. They have made it through sheer grit, courage, determination and hard work. We need to recognize and reward that.

Instead we do two things that don’t serve us or the pioneering achiever.

Expectations to make it easier for the rest of us

We end up placing a huge responsibility on the pioneer to make things easier for the rest of us. This is the magnificent burden that the Firsts have to carry. We expect the ‘one who made it’ to become our champion and make our advancement their single point agenda. I remember hearing a story of a relative who was the first one to leave his village and get into the Indian Administrative service. Everyone else from his village expected a government job to be offered to them on a platter. There was a steady stream of supplicants outside his office. “I am also from — — -” were the magic words that would open up the Ali baba’s cave of treasures for them. There is a sense of entitlement with which we seek the favour of the fortunate one and a feeling of anger and resentment if our entreaties are ignored.

We should expect our leaders to demonstrate objective, inclusive decision making and give a fair hearing to the concerns of the community they represent. We should expect the removal of unfair practices and policies if the person is in a position of influence. We should expect decency, integrity and performance of the role to the highest standards of excellence. We should not expect special favors and concessions.

Expectations of Impossibly High standards

The expectations are higher for the first female leader of any organization or country. She needs to prove herself again and again. Most female leaders are caught in the double bind- to be liked and respected. They feel the pressure to be the role model for the sisterhood. A female leader has to walk the tightrope between owning her identity and yet acting as if it does not matter. She has to maintain a fine balance between her role as a leader and as a representative of her gender. A male leader is never seen through the lens of his gender but for a woman in a position of power, the femaleness is the first thing we notice. We will comment with impunity on her hair, her clothes, her morals and mothering style. She must do it all and look great while doing it. She cannot afford to fail.

The environment is already harsh and unyielding. Kamala Harris, like other women, will face excessive scrutiny. She will need to deal with critics, skeptics and misogynists. We need to set our pioneers up for success just as they need to keep the torch of possibilities blazing.

Demonstrate Pragmatic Optimism

The journey for a marginalized community to gain social, political and economic power, is long and arduous. There will be a backlash. There will be reprisals. Racism in the US did not end after Barack Obama became the President. The Indian subcontinent has seen many women leaders but they have not significantly impacted the condition of our women. Crimes against women in India have increased by 7 % in 2020 according to NCRB data. As per a Catalyst report, participation of women in the workforce has dropped to a new low of 20% this year. Let us be hopeful and inspired but not expect things to change overnight. It is not yet time to wear shoes because of the glass that has been broken around us.

Carry on the good fight

The rest of us, men and women, may not be the First, but we can provide the support and succor for the pioneers. We can be inspired to find our courageous core and carry on the good fight in our own way. For every person who was a First, there were many before her who tried hard and made small beginnings. There was a parent, a teacher, a mentor, another pioneering leader and thousands of grassroot workers who paved the way for that pioneer to succeed. We need to take advantage of the cracks that others have made on the glass ceiling. One person may kindle a spark; the rest of us have to keep the fires burning.

As a woman, I will cheer Kamala Harris along her journey. I hope she will help to create a more just and equitable society not just for women but for all. The best thing I can do now is to let her do her job in the best way she can so that she can shoulder the magnificent burden of being the FIRST with grace and poise. Then she will be the first and definitely not the last woman to hold that high office.



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