Why My 4-Year Old Needed to See Kamala Harris
I, just like every liberal in America, was anxiously awaiting to see who Joe Biden would pick as his running mate. When I discovered he committed to choosing a woman, I had hoped it would be Kamala. Being a law student, I favored the tough, black, former prosecutor turned California state senator, initially discovering her, like much of America, through the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. In these hearings, I saw a fierce, but poised, reliable, and authentic leader, who instantly topped my “one to watch” list.
I was elated when she announced her bid for President, and mourned as I read of her campaign’s end in late 2019, but I knew that this was not the last I’d hear of my beloved Senator.
The moment that changed my point of view.
Working from home has allowed my personal and professional lives to converge in a transformative way. Often my four-year-old daughter would peer over my shoulder as I typed an email, held a Zoom meeting, or during one of my daily news breaks.
During one of these breaks, I checked the news, hoping to see the announcement. My joy must have been magnetic as my daughter slowly wandered from the living room to my office.
As she peers over my shoulder, this time, she didn’t see a half-drafted email or a Zoom filled with coworkers.
Her little eyes, untainted by the world she’s yet to discover, inquired, “Is that Nana?”
Shocked, I looked up from my screen and responded, “Where?,” and her little hand pointed to the article I was reading about Biden’s VP pick. Heading the article was a picture of Kamala hugging a young black girl.
In my 4-year-old’s mind, she thought I was reading an article about her Nana.
My daughter’s grandmother, or Nana, is a mixed African American woman in her late 40’s and has similar coloring to Kamala. I was shocked to see my daughter correlate such a prominent icon in American politics to someone as relatable to her as her grandmother.
When I saw Kamala, I saw a brilliant politician who would make a great President someday.
My daughter saw someone who looked like her.
She equated Kamala’s importance with that of her maternal grandmother. This moment changed my view of representation.
Being a black man in America, I’m used to being the only, or one of the few African-Americans at school or work. You can see this phenomenon in many industries surrounding social justice and change.
The legal industry is historically an industry that struggles with diversity. According to the 2019 ABA report, only 5% of lawyers in America identify as African-American.
The nonprofit industry, designed to be the leaders of organized social change, report consistently that less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive leaders are people of color.
And according to Vice, “the publishing industry is largely controlled by white women, to whom writers of color must pander… Seventy-nine percent of the industry overall is white”.
I spent many of my early working years climbing the ladder of these three industries. To survive, you learn to build an immunity to being singled out as the only one in the room. You become inoculated to comments that purpose to remind you of your status. Comments like, “you don’t talk like them” or “you don’t listen to hip-hop?” or my personal favorite, “you must take after your white side.”
Our children’s early experiences — including the peering over their parent's shoulder — shape what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live or come from where they came from. Simply put, kids determine what they can be based on the examples around them. In the coming years, what my daughter sees will positively or negatively shape her expectations of herself.
There are whole areas of study dedicated to the representation and the consequences of “symbolic annihilation,” a term coined in 1976 by researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross.
The term refers to the belief that if someone doesn’t frequently see people like themselves in the media they consume, then they equate themselves as being unimportant: “Representation in the world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation,” the two researchers concluded.
In other words, she can’t be what she can’t see.
The way the world will see my daughter.
Representation within the black community is essential in today’s world, especially for our little girls. In a recent Georgetown Law study, Girlhood Interrupted, researchers surveyed participants perceived that compared to white girls of the same age, Black girls:
- Need less nurturing
- Need less protection
- Need less support
- Need to be comforted less
- Are more independent
- Know more about adult topics
- Know more about sex
In light of proven disparities in school discipline, the perception of Black girls as less innocent contributes to harsher punishment by teachers and community members. The view that Black girls need less nurturing, protection, and support and are more independent also translates into fewer leadership and mentorship opportunities in schools.
A recent report published by the African American Policy Forum noted: “Black girls sometimes get less attention than their male counterparts early in their school careers and … are perceived to be more socially mature and self-reliant.”
The lack of attention can become the touchstone of neglect that may diminish school achievement in black female students.
The way history will see her.
Three dominant paradigms of Black femininity that originated in the South during the period of slavery have persisted into the present-day culture, which “paint Black females as hypersexual, boisterous, aggressive, and unscrupulous”:
Sapphire (e.g., emasculating, loud, aggressive, angry, stubborn, and unfeminine);
Jezebel (e.g., hypersexualized, seductive and exploiter of men’s weaknesses);
Mammy (e.g., self-sacrificing, nurturing, loving, asexual).
These images and historical stereotypes of Black women have real-life consequences for Black girls today. For example, teachers may subconsciously use stereotypical images of Black females to interpret Black girls’ behaviors.
They can also respond more harshly to Black girls who display behaviors that do not align with traditional standards of femininity in which girls are to be docile, shy, and selfless.
Such tainted perceptions result in patterns of discipline intended to reform the femininity of African-American girls into something more ‘acceptable.’
What she needs to see.
Raising children is tough. Raising smart, confident, and well-adjusted black girls is infinitely more difficult. Our world is changing quickly, and my daughter is growing up faster.
To date, Kamala is only the second African-American woman to be elected to the Senate. She is the first black attorney general of California, and the first woman to ever hold the position.
We need to do more to show little black girls that there isn’t anything they can’t accomplish.
As Joe Biden said, “This morning, little girls woke up across this nation — especially Black and Brown girls who so often may feel overlooked and undervalued in our society — potentially seeing themselves in a new way: As the stuff of Presidents and Vice Presidents.”
My daughter Sadie can only become what she sees or what I show her as “possible.” In a moment, my daughter could see herself becoming the President of the United States.
This is exactly why she, and every black girl in America, needs to see Kamala.