As images of the violence at Capitol Hill still flash in front of our eyes, we must not forget that in less than a week, most of our dark days will be behind us. Through the ballot, America has spoken. After being divisive and closed for so long, America has chosen to unite, open up and embrace what’s been its greatest strength all along — diversity.
As President-elect Joe Biden swears in next week, twelve Indian Americans will join his cabinet. This is an unprecedented number, and a long way from the days when, as I discovered as an immigrant child on the playgrounds of America, ‘Indians’ was easily confused with native Americans.
The America I grew up in made fun of my accent and could never say my name, but over the last four decades, as India grew in the global arena too, I saw America truly include Indian Americans, harness their untapped potential, and empower people like my father to pursue their version of the American dream. President-elect Biden’s cabinet is a strong reflection of this change.
And yet, what is even more inspiring is that by his side, President-elect Biden will have America’s first ever female Vice-President, Kamala Harris. Woman, half-Indian and half-black, Kamala Harris is indeed a shining example of America getting its D&I right.
By placing Harris at the helm of the country, America is sending out a strong, positive signal to the world. It is collectively coming forward to celebrate its diverse talent and potential, not only giving it a voice, but also the mandate to prosper the country. With Kamala Harris as the Vice-President, America is setting an example of not just upholding D&I, but also actively celebrating and empowering it.
These truly are signs of hope and change, not just in the arena of politics and governance, but also in society’s psyche. Now that we have a foot in the door, there is no better time but now to assert that we have a lot more to do. We still have our unconscious biases and prejudices. As our societies open up, accept more possibilities, and turn them into realities, so can our minds through seeing our underlying biases, acknowledging them, and resolving them.
The controversy of Kamala Harris’ depiction on the cover of Vogue highlights just that. Vogue’s Twitter handle shared two pictures of Kamala Harris which will be featured on its February issue. In one, she is wearing sneakers and a jacket; in the other, she is in a suit in front of a golden background. The ‘casualising’ of her attire (which, in the field of politics, represents power and authority) in the one picture is obvious, but what really strikes is her lightened skin tone! A lesser informed person would have trouble guessing her black and Indian roots.
A visibly lighter skinned version of Kamala Harris panders to a host of biases within and beyond Vogue. More importantly, it distorts her roots and her true identity. Indeed, Kamala Harris is American first, but America is not white, she is not white, and her colour reflects where she comes from and what she brings to America. It is our loss if we are not able to capture the beauty of her identity and success in their true essence.
Could we say the same about casualising her attire? Certainly. By dressing her ‘down’, Vogue has missed capturing her big moment. Kamala Harris is not just a successful woman — she is a successful woman who won a huge mandate to impact, shape, and influence millions of lives in America and across the world. If this is not power, what is? Yet, by taking away the visual element of power in her picture, Vogue has missed on reflecting her stature by a mile.
Did they think they were making her look cool? Probably, but then Kamala Harris does not need casuals to be cool — her strength, confidence, personality, and the incredible journey so far makes her cool. There was really nothing Vogue needed to do about this.
Keep going forward
This is just an example, a wide reflection of so many similar biases in our minds and societies, showing us that we have a long way to go. And yet, we have already embarked on the right path. Whether it is you and me calling out such biases and rallying to act upon them. Or, whether it is scores like us who, amid all the divisive noise, vote silently for an inclusive future. Within us there are glimmers of hope, which give each dark cloud a silver lining.
As America walks into a dawn of positivity, hope and transformation next week, we have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot more to look forward to. We have our inner lights to thank — lights which have guided us into transcending our biases and celebrating the best of our diversity. We have restored political sense and conviction in America to be thankful for. And, through actively addressing and breaking down biases in everyday life, we will have a stronger, tighter-knit, and united society to look forward to. Here’s to sunnier times!
Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st Century. Against the backdrop of today’s increasingly uncertain world, she consults leaders and their organizations in inclusiveness, cross-cultural dynamics, diversity and the power of change.