The Problem With ‘Historic Firsts’ | Sojourners

The Problem With ‘Historic Firsts’

Institutions have the capacity to assimilate and co-opt critique instead of being transformed by it. 
Greek columns with a silhouette of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Illustration by Matt Chase

I FIND MYSELF thinking about the significance of “firsts,” the role of faith in the morality of the nation, and the place of race and gender in that project. Vice President Kamala Harris’ ascent to one of the highest seats of political power is historic, unprecedented, and awe-inspiring. Like Barack Obama before her, it is a first that has ushered in, for many, a renewed faith in the nation. Multiply the emotional impact of that first by whatever number captures the firestorm of the past four years, and that faith easily transforms into a belief that “morality” has been secured and that things are going to be, basically, okay.

This train of thought is, I believe, dangerous and wrong. I do not discount the feelings Harris evokes. The emotional impact of Harris’ election registers for me very personally as a Black woman. When I initially heard that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won the election, my first thought was exhilarated shock at Trump’s defeat. Then, as that fact sunk in, I realized that this outcome meant the election of a woman of color—a Black woman, a woman of South Asian descent—to the vice presidency of the United States. Weeks later, the words still seemed somewhat strange, as if my brain was having trouble wrapping itself around the reality. My inability to readily speak her new position reflects to me the depth of her significance, and the change it portends for how I and future generations of Black and brown girls and women will be able to envision and speak of ourselves. I pause, however, at the unexamined triumphal connections being made between Harris, morality, and political futures.

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