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Visibility politics and the case of Kamala Harris

By Tahmina Begum

Nov 18, 2020

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“Visibility politics is killing my people.” Those are the words I spoke out loud to myself after scrolling past countless photographs of Kamala Harris on my Instagram feed. Posts celebrating Harris as the first female and woman of colour to be elected as vice president as well as the first one of Indian descent—and the list of many other firsts went on.

After what felt like an endless cry to get Donald Trump out of office for four years, the common feeling across my more left-leaning social media bubble was that any decision that wasn’t Trump would have been the lesser of two evils. And although Joe Biden was to become the 46th President of the United States, I had never seen such a reaction, both emotional and of happiness for a vice president before. Visibility politics had taken over my people.

This time, ‘my people’ included white women who self-described as ‘allies’ (in their Instagram and Twitter bios, of course) who were crying out for Kamala Harris too. This was the change before our eyes, the good news we needed during a second lockdown and hope in a relentless pandemic. The reaction was almost 2008 Obama-esque. Our feminist activism was clearly working.

Still, everyone kept talking about the same thing. And it is of importance, of course—the topic of Harris’ blackness and South Asian heritage. For an American majority to usher in a black and South Asian woman into power, over their previous cabinet, is telling indeed. We have to remember that the Civil Rights Act was signed only 57 years ago. Less than a decade ago, many wanted to lynch Obama. In the US, racism isn’t as covert as in the UK, the blood shed by innocent protestors is still fresh. Once the presidential election’s result was (somewhat) set, I almost wanted to look past the most blatant thing.

But I couldn’t let it go, especially after Harris’ past had been constantly questioned during the electoral process. In 2016, while speaking to The New York Times, Harris mentioned that she sees herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” a “top cop” who is working “at the table where the decisions are made.”

On the one hand, she created an anti-truancy programme to push the parents of chronically truant kids to get them to school—which quickly backfired, but that’s another story. On the other hand, Harris released a criminal justice reform plan, after fighting to keep people like Daniel Larsen in prison, who was shown to be innocent. When federal judges ordered California for the second time to launch a new parole programme, Harris stated: “prisons would lose an important labour pool.”

She was against the death penalty when a man killed a police officer but defended California’s death penalty system in court. She supported the dismissal of a trans woman’s right for surgery while writing a letter to President Trump alongside 19 senators condemning the removal of LGBTQ+ health-related information from federal websites.

Harris also said she was going to handle America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria “responsibly,” although neglecting to state a clear stance on future wars in the Middle East. This was after her 2017 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when she shared why she was pro-Israel and anti-Palestine.

“I stand with Israel, because of our shared values that are so fundamental for both our nations. I believe the bonds between the US and Israel are unbreakable and we can never let anyone drive a wedge between us.” Harris’ past, just like Biden’s voting record on criminal justice issues, is messy, multi-layered and frankly, contradictory.

Yet now it’s 2020, and when you look her up, you’ll find a video of her dancing with African American children in schools and at a Des Moines steak fry among other places. To get people to vote, she had the likes of Jaden Smith, Selena Gomez, Padma Lakshmi, Curly Velasquez, Becky G involved in her campaign. Creators such as Lilly Singh produced sketch music videos reeling off all the ways Harris is liberal and the right choice to eventually be president—or vice president for now.

Furthermore, Harris’ team has shared images of her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris holding her as a child in a salwar kameez, a traditional combination dress worn by women in South Asia. On her own YouTube channel, Harris is cooking dosas with Mindy Kahling.

Harris and her team have ticked off the BIPOC, queer, millennial, girl boss box. She looks like just the right digestible balance of new and traditional values American liberals dream of—she’s ‘one of us’ so she will also work for us. Let me reiterate it, visibility politics is killing my people.

As if by way of hope, women of colour, South Asian women, women in general and anyone who’s tired of waiting for the world to be a more equal place, settle for any kind of representation in order to be seen and fit in. Mere visibility is what we settled for.

Our world leaders know that it’s all they have to provide, so consequently, that’s all they provide. As Shahed Ezaydi writes in gal-dem, “It feels as though she’s being perceived as progressive because she’s a biracial woman, and not because of her politics. Yet we all know that not all Black and brown people are liberal by nature—look at Priti Patel.”

This isn’t to say that we can’t be happy about the election’s result (if that’s who we voted to win) and enjoy this moment of somewhat progress, but we cannot be disillusioned by what’s on the surface. How one’s policies in office affects the people they’re supposed to be standing up for. And to put it plainly, bombs are bombs at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman of colour who sends the orders to detonate them or a white (orange) man in a red cap.

What about the women in the Middle East? Do we not stand up for their rights or does our feminism not stretch further enough? As Harris said in her first speech as vice president, while she may be the first woman in the office, she will not be the last. This is the bare minimum and the very beginning.