Our voices

We cannot let racist tropes come to define Kamala Harris

With Senator Kamala Harris announced as the Democratic party's vice-presidential candidate, this is a moment when Black people can shape conversations so that she is not limited to the racist perceptions of the media.

U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris was announced as the Democratic party’s vice-presidential candidate for the November 2020 election. For the first time, a Black woman will be on the ballot for a presidential general election. I recognize this as a moment to honor and celebrate the efforts of countless Black women who, over time, have made this historical achievement possible. I also recognize this as a moment when Black people can shape the conversations about Senator Harris so that she is not limited to the racist perceptions of the media. 

Senator Harris is the newcomer to the presidential ballot, she is Black, she is of Indian descent, and she is a woman. Undoubtedly, I expect the media to seize her identities and reduce her to the racialized tropes of the “Strong Black Woman” and the angry “Sapphire” white Americans may come to expect. So, can we, as Black voters, create a wider narrative of Kamala Harris that explores how the present-day policies she will announce will impact this country?

How I perceive the world is often situated in my lived experience as a Black gay-queer cisgender man. So, I will not presume to understand the lived experience of Black women. Additionally, I am ready to stand corrected by those who do. I share my opinion with knowledge that I have room to learn and grow.

I am concerned that archetypes and not present-day actions will limit how voters perceive a Black woman as vice president. The collective American psyche seems to be full of expectations from the Strong Black Woman. She is portrayed as indomitable, fierce, self-sacrificing, without mistakes, and of course “Black enough.” More so, she is almost always portrayed as the servitor and sidekick to a white person.

Can we make room in our understanding of Black women as more than this myth? Yes, Senator Harris is undoubtedly strong, fierce, and accomplished. We have witnessed her veracity during the primary debates. Yet, can we make room to consider that she is imperfect? She has made mistakes in her career as a public servant. Will we allow her the chance to prove she has evolved since her early career? When we hear rhetoric that she is “not Black enough” can we recognize that Black people challenging one another on who is “Black enough” is another racist tool to divide Black people from collectively mobilizing? 

Moreover, I encourage us all to recognize that Kamala Harris’s role should not be that of the supporting sidekick who absolves a white president from doing his own work to address racial inequality. Yes, we need more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) folks in leadership. However, it is not the responsibility of the few BIPOC leaders to take on the whole of racial equality so their white peers don’t have to do the work. It is everyone’s responsibility and as Black people we can continue to demand it be so.

I also expect the media to continue characterizing Senator Harris within the trope of the “Sapphire”. The Sapphire is the angry Black women that a white supremacist society teaches us to fear. This is especially true when Black women speak or act against misogyny, men’s violence against women, racism and systemic oppression. Misogynistic myths of emotional irrationality are overlaid onto the Sapphire archetype. Senator Harris, like many Black people and women, have justifiable reasons to be angry. We are justified in speaking and acting in alignment with our convictions for an equitable society. 

This a moment for us to explore our own misogyny. It is a moment to educate ourselves in the social movements of Black-centered Womanism. It is yet another moment for us to act as co-conspirators with Black women. Not by taking up the space of Black women who lead but by lending all the support we can while challenging ourselves to grow in our understanding.

The media will undoubtedly attempt to reduce Senator Kamala Harris to fit within a white supremacist narrative. However, as Black people, we are informed, we are mobilized, and we are empowered. We can invite Kamala Harris to develop platforms and policies that will push this country through its evolution. We can create narratives that expand the reach and efficacy of Black leadership and women in leadership. Clearly, this is a shining moment in our history. We can honor it. We can celebrate it. We can build upon this! 

About the author

Preston Vargas, PhD

Preston Vargas, PhD is the Director of Black Health.