Scrutiny of Kamala Harris shouldn't be based on her identity

On January 20, Kamala Harris, a woman of black and South Asian heritage, will be sworn in as vice president of the United States of America. Since Joe Biden and Ms Harris crossed the mark of 270 electoral college votes needed to win the US presidential election, this historic first has mostly been the subject of excitement in both America and around the world.

Ms Harris' ascent is a reminder of the remarkable social progress the US has made in a relatively short period of time in its history.

Women couldn't vote until 1920. The Civil Rights Act was only signed in 1964, the year Ms Harris was born. The Voting Rights Act was only signed in 1965. And Ms Harris was part of a race-integration school bussing programme as recently as 1970.

Her inauguration will, therefore, be a momentous occasion. And people are right to feel excited: after all, role models and representation are important. Her success won't just help shape attitudes of girls who look like Ms Harris, but of children from all races – including white children, millions of who will see that someone who doesn’t look like them can hold a position of power. The trickle-down effect will be significant.

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - NOVEMBER 10: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden listens as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addresses the media about the Trump Administration’s lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act on November 10, 2020 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. Mr. Biden also answered questions about the process of the transition and how a Biden Administration would work with Republicans.   Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP
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Success, however, hasn't come easily for Ms Harris.

During the election campaign trail, attacks against her from politicians and certain sections of the mainstream and social media were laced with sexist and racist tropes. President Donald Trump called her "nasty" and "a monster" – words he has used before to describe women who speak their minds. Mr Trump also mocked her Asian first name, when he said: "Kamala. Kamala. You know, if you don't pronounce her name exactly right, she gets very angry at you."

Women everywhere cheered Ms Harris when, during a televised debate with Mike Pence, she uttered the words: "Mr Vice President, I'm speaking." This was in response to Mr Pence's interruptions whenever Ms Harris was making a point.

The racial and gender stereotyping have not stopped even after the election. One of the UK’s leading newspapers, for instance, described in detail her make-up routine – the kind of coverage that serves to trivialise a woman's power by focusing on her looks, clothes and cosmetics. In a recent tweet, UK politician Lord Kilclooney described Ms Harris as "the Indian". This is a common tactic used to erase the individuality of women and people of colour.

Just as swift and scathing, meanwhile, have been criticisms from across the political spectrum of certain policy positions she holds, as a result of which she is being dismissed entirely by many. This is unfortunate.

To be clear, it is absolutely right to hold Ms Harris to account for those positions. Those who believe that she does not deserve any scrutiny just because of her background are wrong. But we need to separate the symbolic power of her candidacy from her own individuality both as a person and a politician.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17: California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013 at the Los Angeles Civic Center in Los Angeles, California. Harris hosted a meeting of the state's district attorneys to develop recommendations on reducing gun violance.   Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

Some of her positions on criminal justice and foreign affairs are unpopular with many liberals, and have attracted anger and disappointment. Her track record as the attorney general of California has received plenty of attention, too. But like all other people, she has her flaws and is not perfect. It is wrong to assume otherwise; her election victory will not simply lead to an immediate course correction in America's chequered history on racial and gender-based justice or foreign policy.

Neither should we expect one person to provide reform the system. While we may hope that she will use her position to begin the process of dismantling systemic inequalities – and that her own background and journey will inform her actions – she is one person, not the messiah. If she does not live up to our very high hopes, that does not make her election a failure.

The most empowering thing to do – for those who believe that the status quo with regard to race relations and gender disparity needs shaking up – is to have a nuanced view of Ms Harris. We can and should celebrate the symbolic systemic breakthrough she has made, while also being able to understand that all individuals, including Ms Harris, are complex and imperfect. We can hold both these thoughts in our minds at the same time.

If we cannot, then we have to face the brutal truth that we are little different from those who view her exclusively through the lenses of racism or sexism or both.

At the same time, subjecting Ms Harris to less scrutiny because she is a woman of colour is as sexist and racist as subjecting her to more scrutiny because she is a woman of colour.

Genuine progress will have been made when noteworthy breakthroughs are no longer symbolic, and the disproportionate scrutiny of women and people of colour becomes a thing of the past. Ms Harris’ election is one more step – an important and welcome one – in that long journey.

Shelina Janmohamed is an author and a culture columnist for The National

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National