Why It Matters
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
And then we exhaled.
It didn't happen when Donald Trump boarded Marine One 25 minutes after it landed on the South Lawn of the White House. It didn't happen when we watched Air Force One take off from Joint Base Andrews and then arrive in Florida two hours later, far from Washington and the preparations for the day's festivities.
It happened when Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. It felt as though after four years of feeling like we were in an alternate universe wondering when the nightmare was going to end we had finally woken up. It's not a Republican rebuke. Nor is it about a Democrat dream. It is about recognising how damaging the last four years had been to so many, not just in America but around the world. It almost felt as though the evils within the Pandora's box that Donald Trump opened, were sucked back in and contained. At least for now.
Perhaps though, the most emotional moment for me was when Kamala Devi Harris, daughter of a professor of economics who came from Jamaica and a world-renowned scientist hailing from India took her oath of office as Vice President of the United States, becoming the first woman and the first Black and South Asian to do so.
That's when I told my 5 year old son that good people do win. Whether it's watching a man who, when he was a young boy was made fun of for having a speech impediment, would grow up to hold the highest office in the land, and would give a stirring speech watched the world over (a speech that was written by a young man called Vinay Reddy whose parents are from India); or a woman who shares your heritage defying stereotypes and expectations, showing strength with compassion and laughter, making history and paving the way for others ("I may be the first, but I won't be the last."), good people win. Good people aren't perfect. But good people bring people together while bullies pull people apart. Good people defend those who can't defend themselves. Bullies only pick on those they know they can overpower.
Heather McGhee, political commentator and author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together said in an interview with political commentator Anand Giridharadas, "Everything we believe comes from a story we've been told. And the zero-sum racial story is one of the oldest stories in the American playbook, and it is sold for profit by people who are benefiting from this current economic system." Basically, the story we've been sold is that to see everyone as an equal reduces the chances of those who benefit the most in a social hierarchy. That for the "others" to win, someone has to lose. It's that myopic view that has strangled our perception of the world, our perceptions of each other, an elbow shove out of the path towards "success". That's what we have been dealing with. That's what has been heralded as "Great" (as in MAGA), the last four years. That's why we have been holding our breath, as in keeping it all within, controlling our emotions for fear that if we let that breath go, we would lose control over a time, a moment, our present and our future.
So yes, the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a big deal. Just as it was a big deal when Barack Obama became President on January 20th, 2009. It's a big deal because perceptions are being shattered. The "it's never been done this way so it can't be done" was heard and then proven wrong. The "don't get your hopes up" was stared at, and it blinked. Nos were "eaten for breakfast." It's all a big deal because of what it represents to people around the world. It represents possibility, possibilities. It's as a member of Howard University's Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Kamala Harris' sorority at her Alma Mater said when watching their sister being sworn in, "She literally walked the same steps. She might have slept in the same building I slept in at Howard. She walked the yard. She majored in the same major I am. I'm just thinking the sky really is the limit. There's nothing I cannot do." That's what America had always been a symbol of to those of us who lived elsewhere---possibilities.
Showing a child living, breathing examples of possibilities does more for their self esteem than simply talking about them. Showing kids everywhere that they're seen, heard, and represented, does more for their self confidence than any words can. I know it because that's what helped me.
Growing up, I saw my mother work 6 days a week at a job she enjoyed. She built two businesses on the side all the while teaching us how to read, write, have manners, and speak eloquently. She shunned tradition in favour of doing things her way. She taught me to forge my own path, to not ever give up, to believe in myself. And when I wanted to work in television in Canada, I was often advised to get my start at Indian stations or Indian programmes. As if that was the only option I had because of the colour of my skin. But when I saw there was one woman of Indian origin hosting an entertainment show on a national mainstream network, I thought, if she can do it then so can I. I didn't want to be pigeon-holed, I didn't want to do what was expected of me. I wanted to challenge those expectations for no other noble reason other than simply pursuing my dreams. Because I never defined myself by my skin colour. I never defined myself as an Indian even though I was proud of my heritage. I defined myself as a young girl who literally was walking along a path wanting to see where it led her. That's how I've always been, how I've always defined my ambitions. Yet it was that unconscious desire to break boundaries that helped other young men and women feel they could too.
Representation matters. Representation in the form of colour, gender, kindness, compassion. If a kid sees it, they understand it's ok; it's ok to be brown, black, kind, creative, weird, wonderful, different. The images seep into their subconscious, recording it, imprinting a moment, a feeling even, in the annals of minds, that one day could have a huge impact. And it isn't just for kids of colour, it is a chance to normalise such moments for all kids. A chance for them to see that anyone can achieve greatness if they work hard and believe they have it them to do so. It is a chance to break the chains of the past in order for a future to be vastly different to the present.
These are important moments for my son's, our children's, emotional intelligence. Learning that the temperament of a leader who wants the best for all, that's who people respond to, that's what brings out the best in everyone else, even amongst the kids in the school yard; it's not the person who is about bravado and boast, and selfish gains. My son sees how my husband and I talk about news and politics, he absorbs what he hears. We aren't shy to debate in our house, after all it's a house made up of two former journalists. We debate with respect and we explain to our boy why we support who we support. This is the foundation of his intellectual and emotional education--what he learns from us, what he sees through us---how to be and what he could be. So we say out loud, "look at that strong, smart woman," or "see how that man speaks so beautifully, calmly. Listen to the words he's using..." We show him examples of leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who said in the NY Times in 2018, "One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong." We focus on those who are expanding the human consciousness instead of those who prefer to soil it with hatred and greed.
What representation signifies, whether it's a leader on the world stage or a young poet standing before the world expressing what's in her heart, is our possibilities. What representation signifies whether it's who we see in front of us or how they present themselves, is a feeling of acceptance. And when we feel accepted--especially by ourselves, we can then focus on what we are capable of. It's as Barack Obama said so eloquently shortly after he left office in 2017, "We don’t ask you to believe in our ability to bring change, rather, we ask you to believe in yours."
And as for that beautiful young poet, America's first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman. A 22 year old who believed she could because of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Malala Yousafzai, and her own mother. I leave you with her words. Words of this 22 year old who held our breaths that were filled with wonder and a lightness as she spoke.
"We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one....
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it."
And then we exhaled.