What breaking the glass ceiling really entails
In a world where white privilege is the norm, a woman of colour marching her way to the top is heartening
What does it take to break a glass ceiling? Losing something of yourself. Change comes only when those invested in bringing it give up on something they hold dear. Kamala Harris would know. Not too long ago, the vice-president-elect of the United States had famously remarked that anything that involves breaking also involves hurt. The injury is possibly deeper when it is a woman of colour setting out to bend the rules. Today, if Kamala Harris is being lauded for breaking the highest, sturdiest glass ceiling in modern politics, it has not come without its impediments.
Which also serves to remind us that trailblazing as her ascent to power may be, it will still be a while before reality on the ground changes. Last year, Harris ran a brief presidential campaign that was marked by a close scrutiny of her role as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. Harris has carefully positioned herself as a ‘progressive prosecutor’, but her critics believe that her intervention in cases of police atrocities and reform had been less than satisfactory. While reams have been written about it, snatches of her own experiences show how difficult it must have been for someone like Harris to hold her own. Speaking about her time as DA, Harris’ former chief of policy claimed that she faced hostility in the department from the beginning, with many homicide detectives refusing to interact with her and addressing her white male subordinates instead. Imagine navigating spaces where your authority is often undermined by your gender and colour of your skin! Her plainspeak has had detractors even among Democrat supporters many of whom believed her takedown of Joe Biden in last year’s Democratic debates would enable Trump and Co. to mount an attack. In the debates, Harris had accused Biden of working with segregationist senators to oppose busing in the 70s. Her pointed takedown had many believe she was too ambitious. As though it was a bad thing! Even for a woman with many firsts suffixed to her name, the going has been far from easy. It is less likely to be so going forward. Is she a pragmatist or a progressive? Possibly a bit of both.
In a divided and volatile political climate, it helps to have a leader who can take a more angular view of issues. But while we celebrate Kamala Harris, it is important to realise that trailblazing as her win may be, it does not guarantee that America’s social realities are changing, just as President Obama’s election and re-election could not stop the narrative on racial equality being completely overturned in the subsequent term.
The Trump years have changed something basic in the social fabric of the country, and the challenge for both Biden and Harris will be to resonate even among those who still believe that the progressive values are negotiable. Kamala Harris’ win is a story of possibilities. In a world where white privilege is the norm, a woman of colour marching her way to the top is heartening. Is this an aberration or norm? To borrow the cliché, time will tell.
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