Because Representation Matters

On election night 2008, I watched in awe when the TV screen projected a picture of Barack Obama and the simple caption, “44.”

I voted for him that morning but didn’t believe the country would put him in office. I was flabbergasted when he won and glad to have been proven wrong. I remember taking to Facebook as all the networks shared in collective shock and awe; watching people I knew erupt in joy in all their posts (the digs from naysayers would come a tad bit later). In elation, I posted: “Now maybe my son can be president too.”

You see up until about 11 p.m. November 4, 2008, I bought into the falsehood that the highest and second-highest offices in the land would always be held by elderly, white males. And I accepted it.

That’s what happens when you grow up a brown girl in America in the 80s and 90s. I can’t complain too much about my childhood and formative years. One was spent in suburban New York, and the latter was all about blossoming in laid-back Southern California. It was a great way to grow up (minus some stuff here and there, of course). The toys, sitcoms, and popular culture of the 80s; the music, fashion, and finding oneself in the 90s–good memories. But I looked at leadership around me and saw all the white faces and thought, “That’s how it is. Americans don’t look like me, so I’ll never be up there on TV or anything like that.” Maybe it was because my aspirations were never anything groundbreaking. I vacillated between paleontologist, writer, and lawyer. President or even Vice-President? Not interested. Why? Because I never saw a way.

Back to election night 2008. I have a daughter and a son. Why did I default to my son as the one who could now fly to the White House one day if he wanted to? Why didn’t I include my also capable daughter in those lofty goals?

I have to look to internalized misogyny, sexism, and racism as the reason why. Not that I was ok with any of it, but more because I had no faith that any of that was truly changeable. And since my life and my goals were safe inside my bubble of comfort, I didn’t think I needed to see anyone looking like me in places of power or fame in America.

How wrong I was.

I lived this American life since we came here when I was two years old. But as I reflect on my childhood and teen years, I was present and participated in many things without ever feeling like it was about me or for me. I could be there, but not completely. But again, I didn’t question it.

My dolls were white (except the one year we found Indian Barbie, though her skin tone was more olive at best). The shows I watched—and loved—had no one on them who looked like me. Magazines featured white and sometimes black women. And makeup? It took some creativity to find ways of making available color palettes work for my skin tone. And that didn’t bother me.

Sheesh, as I write this, I see that I was tucked away in some oblivious trance for too long. Perhaps it is the nature of my personality as someone content to fly under the radar that it didn’t bother me if I was represented or not. Thankfully, I see the folly of that now.

So, when Kamala Devi Harris—who grew up eating a South Indian’s weekday standby meal of rice and dal as I did—is inaugurated January 20 as the first female, black, and South Asian Vice President of the United States, I will celebrate.

I will celebrate because in all those years I lived in oblivion, I never dared to dream of this day. Now I fully see: This is my country. I do have the right to be part of its leadership. I have ownership in the United States of America. I am not just tolerated, but accepted. There is now a female vice president-elect who looks like me and millions of other girls. And now we all see that the top jobs can be ours just as much as our fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons.

Thank you, Madame Vice President Kamala Harris, for the wake-up call. You are a walking message I am glad future generations of young women—of any color—will never have to question.

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