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Kamala Harris: Breaking barriers and the positive impacts of her multiracial identity

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

The mother of the current U.S. Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris, said to her: “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”

As a multiracial woman, Harris’s climb from candidate to one of the most powerful positions in the country is an influential inspiration for current and future lawyers, especially those from immigrant, racial and ethnic backgrounds, says Traci Bransford, Partner at Stinson, and Ritu Ghai, Associate Commercial Counsel at Google. Both Bransford and Ghai are members of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color’s advisory board.

Particularly, for Ghai, who said she can see her story in Harris’s. “Seeing that her mother was an Indian immigrant, her father was an immigrant as well, and how in touch she is with her cultural roots while maintaining how strong she feels about American values has been really inspiring and important for me” as a first generation Indian American, Ghai says. The story of Harris demonstrates how a child of immigrants can embrace being an American and rise to be a leader on a large public platform, even though her family does not go back generations in this country.

Expanding the norm of what a leader looks like

Harris’s ascent has brought many positive issues to the forefront, including:

Motivating the next generation of women leaders — The visibility of Harris as a multiracial woman on the largest stage in this country, in and of itself, sends powerful and positive messages to young women of color that they too can achieve what they desire. Many middle and high schoolers from diverse race and ethnic communities don’t see enough of their own in leadership roles, Bransford says. “Kamala is such a positive role model to who can reach beyond what they thought was possible,” she adds.

Animating the futures of girls from immigrant families — Families from other countries immigrate to the U.S. for better opportunities and to focus on economic prosperity for themselves and their extended families back in their country of origin. For many girls whose parents were not born in this country, they see how hard their parents must work, and they carry with them their family’s high expectations of success and achievement without a focus on leadership roles. Harris is a role model for women and girls to inspire them to dream big and reach far to set goals without the need to break with their values and the culture of their families.

“That’s why breaking those barriers is worth it… it creates that path for those who will come after us.”

—Kamala Harris, Vice Presidential-Elect of the United States

Bringing visibility to the experiences of women of color in Corporate America — The VP candidacy of Harris also normalized the experiences and challenges women of color professionals and lawyers face in Corporate America. “I sit at the intersectionality as an African American and female in big law where there were not any black women role models for me to look up to at my Stinson office in Minneapolis,” Bransford says, adding that she often hears the positive effect of her leadership (as co-chair of Stinson’s employee resource group) has had on attorneys of color, especially those who are junior associates. In particular, they see me as someone to look up to, which provides them with encouragement as they navigate big law, Bransford explains, noting that the large public platform of Harris as a VP candidate multiplies her impact as a role model to millions.

Breaking down stereotypes — Harris is expanding the image of what a leader looks like as the first woman of color elected V.P. and is disrupting preconceived notions of how Black women behave. Harris has utilized her eloquence in the way she presents herself and how she operates to destroy the stereotypes about Black women being “angry” or speaking with an attitude when they are simply speaking their personal and professional truth, according to Bransford. “Because she does not hold her tongue and will grill someone in the Senate, she gets to the ultimate answer based on her years of experience, intellect class and grace, which some may find disarming,” she says.

At the same time, Harris is buttressing everything about the white male leadership narrative, behavior, and image simply by being who she is, what she looks like, and what she brings. “In partnership with our allies who are white men, we have to examine and unearth white, masculine behaviors to assess honestly who they are really benefitting and how they are not working for others,” Bransford observes.

Mainstreaming the dialogue about two justice systems — Her V.P. election opens the conversation around racial injustice for Black men and women; and as a multiracial woman, she is uniquely positioned to address it. Harris’s Black identity ensures that she feels deeply the impact of the two systems of justice in America — one for Black and Brown people, and one for everyone else. Harris then can offer new policy solutions to address it, despite knowing she is going to get a lot of backlash.

Also, her Indian heritage speaks to the momentum of other immigrant communities and communities of color and shows solidarity in the growing movement for racial justice. “We have to stand by Black people and recognize that a lot of what they accomplished during the civil rights movement paved the way of progress for many of us who immigrated to the U.S. after the civil rights movement,” says Ghai. “Legal decisions during the civil rights era — such as Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriages — have benefitted us all.”

Either way, both Ghai and Bransford remain optimistic that Harris’s presence as V.P. on the national stage is a big step forward and brings a new excitement to women. “Because she is multiracial, I love the fact that I’ve been hearing women of color from all races discuss their delight in her candidacy,” states Bransford.

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