The way South Indian women tell stories, you don’t begin with “Once upon a time.” You tell a woman’s story by starting with the women who came before her: her mother, and her grandmother before that, and maybe even her grandmother in her previous life. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the main action. But the idea is that when you trace a woman’s lineage, you carve her path. You set the stage.
I thought a lot about brown women — the ways we set the stage for one another, and bear each others’ witness — while watching Sen. Kamala Harris run for president. Like me, Sen. Harris is the daughter of a South Indian immigrant mother. Like me, she spent childhood summers visiting India, and she navigated this country as a first-generation American and woman of colour. And like me, she felt strongly that the American Dream needed to be reformed, equalised, and defended, which is why she went into public service in the state of California. Then she ran for senator. And then, for president.
Sen. Harris, who dropped out of the 2020 race yesterday after saying she doesn’t have enough funds to continue, was by no means a perfect presidential candidate. Based on the campaign she ran, she wouldn’t have had my vote, in part due to her lack of support for a single-payer healthcare system, as well as her prosecutorial record, some of which reportedly had harmful impacts on the communities of colour she served. Still, I will never forget how it felt to watch one of the most accomplished, courageous, and inspiring politicians of my lifetime run for president — all while looking like me.
The truth is that it’s never easy to be a woman of colour in politics. I’m only 18 years old, but even I know that to be true — as a progressive activist, I’m constantly being attacked by men who find me insolent and threatening. Although people of colour are disproportionately impacted by issues like climate change, gun violence, and pay gaps, we’re underrepresented in positions of political power. While Congress is more diverse than ever, it is still proportionally lacking in women of colour. Absolutely zero of our 45 presidents have been women, let alone women of colour. So as a Black and Indian-American presidential candidate, Kamala Harris didn’t just beat these dismal odds — she made it infinitely easier for women of colour to be visibly electable and unapologetically powerful.
As the daughter of immigrants, I always felt like I lived just out of the frame. None of the politicians on TV looked like me. When talking about representation, people often use the adage, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And yet Sen. Harris did just that. She had the foresight to occupy spaces where nobody like her had been — from California attorney general to U.S. Senator to presidential candidate. In doing so, she ensured that no brown girl would ever again have to use her imagination to see herself in a position of power. She just had to turn on the television.
The intense courage it takes for a woman of colour to run for office — particularly a first-generation American — is something I don’t think many white voters can truly appreciate. Although Sen. Harris herself has credited her Indian mother for encouraging her interest in public service, many Indian-American women are discouraged from entering politics because of the deeply ingrained immigrant fear of “rocking the boat.” In his viral stand-up special Homecoming King, comedian Hasan Minhaj described how his father once refused to stand up to a racist neighbour because of the immigrant philosophy of “putting your head down” and “paying the American Dream tax.” In response, Hasan made an argument that has influenced me to this day. “I was born here,” he said, “so I actually have the audacity of equality.”
The audacity of Kamala Harris to dedicate herself to bettering a country that historically never dedicated itself to her is perhaps the greatest revolution of all.
And that audacity of equality — the audacity of Sen. Harris to dedicate herself to bettering a country that historically never dedicated itself to her — is perhaps the greatest revolution of all. She proved to girls like me that we have a stake in this country’s future just as much as anyone else. Her candidacy illustrated to first-generation Americans that we have both the right and the duty to demand improvement of the society we live in. When it comes to breaking barriers to political participation, her campaign’s impact cannot be understated.
Throughout her campaign, Sen. Harris subverted countless stereotypes with her dogged pursuit of justice, whether she was grilling Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, or taking a hard stance against Trumpian corruption. To see a woman weaponise her aggressiveness, her pushiness, her eloquence and convictions — all the qualities I once stifled in myself as a child — is unspeakably powerful. This act of redefinition — of disrupting narratives about who gets to hold power, and shifting the norms of what women can do — is hard to measure, but I believe its impact is coming.
Still, her failure hurts, mostly because I understand that her minority identity influenced her campaign’s fate. The fact that a high-profile, moderate-Democrat woman of colour capsised, while the less-qualified moderate-Democrat Pete Buttigieg surged in the polls, hurts. The fact that Sen. Harris dropped out before Tom Steyer, Michael Bennet, and Michael Bloomberg, hurts. The fact that only white candidates have qualified for the December Democratic debates so far hurts acutely. But the fact remains that the face of politics is changing, and Sen. Harris’ candidacy is prophetic of what the future of this country looks like — particularly when my generation runs for office.
I wasn’t planning to vote for Sen. Harris, and now I might never do so. But more than ever, I find myself returning to the idea of stories, and how intimately they shape my identity as an Indian-American woman. I think about brown mothers who leave home to build better lives for their daughters — and brown daughters who must now translate that precious gift of opportunity into impact. I think about how my mother is sometimes hesitant about my outspoken politics: of what will happen if I go out on a limb and my campaign fails. I want to remind her that her own mother must have felt the same way, when she went out on a limb and boarded a plane to America. I know that if I run for office, my story won’t be complete without her in it.
The same holds true for Sen. Harris. When we tell the first woman president’s story, we’ll have to start with the women who came before her.
We’ll have to start with her.
Malavika Kannan is an author and advocate for girls changing the world. She is also the founder of Homegirl Project, a youth-led organisation that empowers girls of colour as political leaders. The views expressed here are her own.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?