The Historic Win of “Madam Vice President” Needs No Qualifier
Yes, she is Black and Indian, but never forget that in this role she represents White women too
“Groundbreaking: Kamala Harris becomes first Black, South Asian woman vice president” Newsweek tweeted. “Kamala Harris to make history as the first Black woman vice president,” reads the CBS News headline. “Harris becomes first Black woman, South Asian elected VP,” reads the Associated Press headline.
To many, Newsweek’s tweet and headlines for the Associated Press and CBS News’ stories seem harmless, complimentary even. But they perpetuate the erasure and minimization of Black women and women of color’s achievements for all women. And that is far more dangerous and damaging than most of us realize. Always racially qualifying Vice President-Elect Harris’ monumental achievement suggests that it is not legitimate, and that she achieved it only on a curve, instead of earning it.
And that ideology continues to undermine how our nation, as whole, views Black women specifically and women of color overall. So, instead of being congratulatory or even inclusive as these publications intend, both serve as more painful evidence of how truly unseen women of color continue to be even when one of us shatters this nation’s second highest glass ceiling.
When Hillary Clinton became the first woman Democratic nominee for president of the United States against Donald Trump in 2016, lots of mainstream media heralded it as a watershed moment for women. No one said she was the first White woman candidate. Yet when many of those outlets recounted the road to get there, more than a few skipped over the importance of Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for president. (For the record, Chisholm was Black.) And now major mainstream media like Newsweek and CBS News is following suit with Kamala Harris, who has succeeded in becoming the first woman vice president of the United States, the highest office in government any woman to date has held in this country.
Now, it is true that she is the first Black and South Asian American child of an immigrant parent (her mother was Indian) to attain this position. Because her father is Jamaican, she is the first person of Caribbean descent to reach this height as well. Of course we should celebrate and never forget this. But at some point, she will need to become Madame Vice President without a racial qualifier at all.
To lead with a racial qualifier in describing this milestone for all women reinforces the subliminal messaging that milestones for all women are not legitimate unless achieved by a White woman. Sadly the title of the groundbreaking manifesto edited by Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith in 1982 proclaiming All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies is no less true nearly 40 years later.
This year is the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving all White women and some Black women the right to vote. In that movement, the names Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are well-known, but those of Frances E.W. Harper and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, along with sisters Harriet Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten, are not and actually rarely mentioned among the early suffragists in mainstream discussions. Twentieth century suffragists Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells are also rarely acknowledged. While the pandemic, as it’s done to many other important milestones, has taken the steam out of the movement, is Kamala Harris being elected VP, alongside Joe Biden, a century later (even as shameful it is that it’s taken this long) not big news all by itself?
Over a century ago, legend has it Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I A Woman?” And while historians may debate whether that speech ever happened or not. What we do know for sure is: In 2020, Harris’ VP win is a win for all women, not just women of color.