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OPINION

Kamala Harris and the tragedy of pioneering labels

This isn't identity politics. It's the politicization of identity.

In an image provided by the Biden campaign, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, front center, with, from left, her grandfather, sister, mother and grandmother in 1972. The Democratic vice-presidential pick gained part of her foundation from her mother's side of the family, which defied stereotypes in India and promoted equality for women.
In an image provided by the Biden campaign, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, front center, with, from left, her grandfather, sister, mother and grandmother in 1972. The Democratic vice-presidential pick gained part of her foundation from her mother's side of the family, which defied stereotypes in India and promoted equality for women.JOE BIDEN CAMPAIGN/NYT

There are many firsts for Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee: First Black woman, first woman of color, first Asian-American woman, first Indian-American, first South Asian-American, first Jamaican-Asian-American. The hyphenated list can go on.

To no one’s surprise, media coverage of Harris’s nomination has focused on her race and gender. We know she is biracial — the daughter of Indian and Jamaican parents who immigrated to America. But the most trending label assigned to her is that she’s the first Black woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. Still others have labelled her exclusively as the first Indian-American in the running.

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But Harris is also the first vice presidential nominee who graduated from a Canadian high school in Montreal. We didn’t hear much about that, did we?

And perhaps, it’s time to face the ultimate truth that we, as minorities, are exhausted by the expectation to create history.

The reality is Harris, like many public figures from minority backgrounds, is being framed as a pioneer exclusively for her Blackness, for her Asian-ness, and for her gender — and not for dozens of her accolades. Why? Because the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party need it. Ostensibly, she fits the bill for the times: Black Lives Matter saw renewed momentum, feminism is mainstreamed, diversity is in high demand. Harris’s pioneering label is being positioned to capture the progressive vote.

Harris may well be the best candidate, but here’s the problem: Her candidacy has become a means to an end for Democrats. For political gains. Her center-left positions (which clearly differed from Biden on critical issues like trade and Medicare for All), her intelligently unique view, and her legacy of policy action are dwarfed by reductionist labels on her race and gender. Because race and gender sells. A complicated track record in the California judicial system? Not so much.

This isn't identity politics. It's the politicization of identity. And it's not new to 2020.

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Being “first” has been equated with being of exceptional originality and hence, of exceptional impact. But there is no guarantee of the latter, especially when the pioneering label is confined only to characteristics like gender, race, and ethnicity. Of course, these are important qualifiers, but when used unfairly, they blur every inch of individuality that lies beyond skin-level.

Pioneering labels, especially for underrepresented minorities running for public office, become detractors from their true persona. And beyond the media hype, they can be dilatory to the policy goals of the candidate. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign was consumed by the label of first openly gay candidate for the presidential ticket. His platform had a lot more to offer than that, but the media’s framing of Buttigieg’s identity overshadowed his political messaging. For Barack Obama, being the first Black President of the United States was a label with weight so immense, it continued to affect his policy throughout his two terms.

Harris is suffering the same fate. She’s an incredibly gifted attorney who won a mortgage settlement that helped more than 80,000 families during the housing crisis, led a billion dollar settlement against for-profit colleges, and prosecuted transnational gangs in the fight against human trafficking. But since her nomination, the image of Harris has been diminished to headlines on her race and gender. Would Harris rather be known by the accomplishments she earned in the legal arena or by the phenotypic traits she was born with? As she told The Washington Post in a 2019 interview, she would rather be “measured by her own merits.”

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Unfortunately though, marketing giants, publicists, and media houses have already made the decision for her. Of course, this is a matter of tremendous honor: Harris has broken systemic boundaries in achieving this milestone. But “first” labels are reducing her multidimensionality to convenient headlines and simplifying her struggle to make it palatable for constituents.

This is inherently exploitative treatment of minorities as instruments of political agendas. And pioneering labels become the language for framing this superficial representation. When minorities are defined merely by the characteristics that make them a minority, they are stripped of agency that comes from years of hustle in an overall unjust system. Through pioneering labels, public figures from minority backgrounds are tied to expected behavior and social pigeonholes that are created and fulfilled by oppressive power structures that minorities are actively trying to break in the first place.

Of course, it’s nice to be the “first” to do something. But while these labels are empowering on the outside, they are reductionist and exoticize the challenges faced by underrepresented communities. Recognition of a milestone is essential, but when it romanticizes the struggle of alienated groups through glorified labels, it risks erasure of their true voice — one that is deeper than any physical attribute.

And perhaps, it’s time to face the ultimate truth that we, as minorities, are exhausted by the expectation to create history. Pioneering labels feed upon pressures that people of color and women face to become trailblazers for the rest of their groups. The fact is, people of color and women are more than just commodities for diversity and representation in the political arena. Pioneering labels fail to capture that.

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Ali Shahbaz is a freelance writer who works in international development in Washington D.C.