Vice President Kamala Harris: How Being First is Rewarding and Exhausting

Vice President Kamala Harris is the First woman, first Black woman, first S. Asian woman, and so many other firsts. She is celebrated domestically and globally as befitting her newly elected stature.

Vice President Kamala Harris helped deliver over eighty-million votes, flip five states, and win Joe Biden the presidency in resounding fashion over lame-duck, impeached, incumbent Donald Trump.

V.P. Harris has long been a trailblazer and “first” – as District Attorney in San Francisco, as Attorney General of California, and as Senator from California.

She has been celebrated, attacked, beloved, hated, rewarded, lied on, admired, and despised. She has been, as anyone who has ever been a “first,” all things to all sides.

And she has carried the “burden” that comes with being a “first.”

If you have ever been a “first” you know the struggle and stress of trying to achieve your professional/personal objectives while meeting the needs of everyone who has a real or imagined interest and investment in your success and/or failure.

Being a “first” can be overwhelming for the first in a family to go to college or start a business. The first to take on a management role, the first to buy a home, buy a new car, or travel out of state or overseas.

Many of us can tell of the stress we felt within our families when we achieved success and then had to deal with the expectations put on us by others.

I spoke to a person who was the first in her family to be an executive – with a Fortune 5 company. Her family were mostly non-management and hourly workers, so though her resume was impressive and her responsibilities vast, members of her family often criticized her for “being in management” and “turning on the little people,” who were presumably like her own family.

At family gatherings she quickly learned not to share certain employee stories because her family immediately disagreed with whatever she said management was doing, even when she tried to clearly share why the employee was wrong. She would also listen to her family’s opinions of her stories and keep quiet because she saw things differently and knew the efforts she put into helping her employees as best she could.

Sometimes her help didn’t achieve what was needed and she had to fire an employee and she felt guilty, anguish, and shame. And though she wanted the comfort and reassurance of her family, she had by then learned not to expect it.

Not the same as being Vice President but there are similarities.

When Vice President Kamala Harris talks about wanting to work inside the criminal justice system in order to change it so that it could be less harmful to Black people, abused women and girls, and low-level offenders, one can see and feel her care and concern.

But others saw her complicity with a system that is doing as designed, and then faulting her for joining it and being an enforcer of the built-in inequities.

We saw the same criticism of President Obama who nuanced his way through difficult racial issues that are always present in America but somehow no matter how balanced his response, folk on the left and right laid the blame at his feet for being “not Black/radical enough” to being “Too Black/radical” at the same time.

To be the first Black person in any role is to be a type of time-traveler to fulfill the hope of the past, be an example to the present, and be so successful that the door you opened is opened so wide it never closes again.

And of course, the same is true to Native, Latino/Hispanic, and other minorities.

In fact, Joe Biden becomes a first as well – the first 80+ year old president when elected.

What does being first mean to the press who will cover Vice President Kamala? What can we expect from the press who struggled covering President Obama relative to race issues? And what can we expect from the press who were shameful in their coverage of Hillary Clinton?

Vice President Kamala is the intersection of race, gender, biracial, and immigrant – all areas our national press cover poorly with racists, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant.

Add to all of that, the inherent expectations of Black women, Black men, S. Asian people, and immigrants, who all want Kamala – their Kamala – to honor the past, set an example for the present and, as Kamala herself said: “Make certain that while I am the first, I will not be the last.”

The new administration will have many challenges, from a widening pandemic, and stagnant economy, to wars, attempts to reintegrate into the global community, and rebuild federal institutions destroyed by the prior administration.

And while VP Harris and President Biden will necessarily focus on each of those critical needs, along with the press who will find their backbone after five years of fealty to Donald Trump, it would be wise of their supporters to recognize the unique challenges of being first that both leaders will experience and which VP Kamala will epitomize perhaps more than any Vice President and President ever.

© 2020 by Myron J. Clifton. All Rights Reserved.

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