I was on a hike in Garrison, New York, when I heard the news of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s victory. I felt elated. Then suddenly I felt this heat welling up from my chest into my throat and it burst out of me in tears I could not control. At first I didn’t even know why I was sobbing.
Finally, I was thinking. Finally a woman, and a woman of colour, takes this office.
I felt like a marathon runner who breaks down into tears at the end of a race. And that marathon was a lifetime of fighting to be seen and to advance, as an immigrant and woman of colour with few guides.
I cried again as I watched Harris address the nation last weekend as the vice president-elect. The world finally saw a Black woman, whose parents came from Jamaica and India, near the pinnacle of American power. That vision, in an instant, seemed to evaporate some of the unnecessary hurdles I had faced, making a different path for a child like me growing up today.
Our striking commonalities made Harris’ victory particularly poignant for me — but I think she offers many Black and brown girls and women a sense of belonging.
Now, days later, everyone is talking about President Trump again. His refusal to concede shouldn’t steal Vice-President-elect Harris’ moment — his time is up and her time, and ours, is just beginning.
When I first came to this country at age 4 from India, walking around New York City, I was excited to see all kinds of people — with different colours of skin, styles of dress and ways of moving through the world. But slowly I became aware of a different world, through magazines and TV, where almost everyone was white.
I watched a lot of television: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, One Day at a Time, Three’s Company, Happy Days, Fantasy Island. As a latchkey kid in the ’80s, these shows raised me and taught me about American life.
The idealised America on television
Children know when they are being sorted. I could see that the idealised America on the TV screen and the magazine pages did not value Black and brown people like me and many I knew.
I figured out how to navigate the time a boy called me the N-word when I was 11; and navigate the times I auditioned for acting roles in my 20s, only to be told they weren’t “going ethnic”; and navigate the times in my 30s when I didn’t know to negotiate full credit for my work.
Things might have been different if I had seen more women like me in positions of power — role models to show me a path.
Often now, strangers — girls and women of colour — approach me to say that seeing my face on television expanded their aspirations. I’m just a cable food show host. Imagine how wide the ripples of impact can be when a woman of colour is vice-president.
The Harris inspiration
Harris understands this. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she assured us. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Over the summer, I learned that Harris’ mother’s family comes from the same city in India as my family. Her grandparents lived right around the corner from mine in the Besant Nagar area of the city of Chennai. Our grandfathers might have strolled together in the same walking group of retirees on Elliot’s Beach. We both spent summers visiting there, and might have been sent on errands to the same All-in-One corner store that sold half-rupee candies and lentils by the kilo. In the United States, we were raised by single mothers who both worked in health care — mine as a nurse and hers as a biomedical scientist.
When she accepted the Democratic nomination for the vice-presidency, she thanked her chitthis, the word for aunties in Tamil, a language of South India — not in Hindi, an official language of the country. Never in my life did I imagine a Tamil-speaking vice president of the United States.
Our striking commonalities made Harris’ victory particularly poignant for me — but I think she offers many Black and brown girls and women a sense of belonging.W
Why the US is my country
President Trump’s attacks on women, on people of colour and on immigrants feel personal to us. As he allows a pandemic to run rampant in our country and even threatens our democracy, it feels like a betrayal that so many Americans persist in supporting him.
His vitriol encourages those who hate us. In comments under my Instagram and Twitter posts, people frequently tell me, “Go back to your country.”
I say: This my country. I have contributed to it with my taxes, my writing and television shows and my activism. I am working to improve this nation, which you do not do for a place you do not love.
I would also like to say: So many women in my family and our communities have been invisible, even as we have helped build this country with our own hands. We have cleaned your toilets, we have waited on you in restaurants, we have done your taxes, we have ministered to your children in the paediatrician’s office, we have programmed your computers, we have cared for your elderly, we have even led your companies. But you have sidestepped us and made us feel less important than you.
Harris is part of a new generation of elected women of colour, taking office at this absurdly divided time when people of colour are both ascendant and under attack. And these women are not just in power; they have excelled, often precisely because of their life experiences. Senator Harris pinioned Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brilliantly rebuked a fellow congressman, Ted Yoho, when he used a sexist insult against her. Representative Pramila Jayapal grilled Attorney General William Barr about the decision to take an “aggressive approach” against Black Lives Matter protesters — but not against gun-toting protesters who crowded a state capitol.
Now Harris will have new authority and reach as vice-president. The Trump era she is ending empowered people to show their racism nakedly, in slights and jeers and acts of violence. For many people of colour and immigrants, the message was clear: You do not belong here, and you are not wanted.
It will be a difficult and long path to undo that damage. But for me and other girls and women of colour, Harris embodies an opposite message: You do belong here, her life says, and you obviously can achieve absolutely anything.
— Padma Lakshmi is the host and executive producer of “Taste the Nation” and “Top Chef” and an artist-ambassador for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).