Last week, Kamala Harris made history. She became the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Asian American to become Vice President of America. This is a big deal. There may be those among us who believe that the world is a fair and equitable place where if one is qualified and works hard, they can be all they want to be. Perhaps those people believe that there is no glass ceiling and the reason why women and/or people of color have never attained something is simply because they are not qualified or don’t put in the hard work. For the, perhaps, more cynical among us, this is a big deal because it means that there is an unnecessary obstacle (at least part of it) has been broken down. I feel as though I can perhaps personalize Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” quote. However, I just spent way too long trying to decide if he said “man” or “a man” and now there is no time for personalization.
People living in the fifth century B.C. believed that the sun and the moon were gods. Among them was a man, Anaxagoras, who believed otherwise. He studied the sun and the moon and came to the conclusion that the sun and the moon were not gods but, in fact, objects. This is something that we take for granted now but, back in the fifth century B.C. this led to Anaxagoras being arrested and sentenced to death for “impiety”. Fortunately, he escaped death but ended up in exile, because he was, in essence, thinking outside society’s box.
Fast forward to the age of now, where those who speak of colonizing Mars are celebrated and revered. We live in an age where the dreaming impossible dreams is encouraged. It is only if you dream it and believe it that those dreams can come true and make our world better. Someone even dreamt about and claims to have created high heeled shoes that are “truly comfortable”, and that is something I believed could never happen (between us, I kinda still do). As the shortest child in my family, I have spent a lot of time trying to be less short. I have worn many pairs of high heels and while some have been torturous to wear, some have been less painful, but none have been as comfortable as my sneakers. I am skeptical, yes, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.
After inauguration day, I was listening to the news, as I worked through some morning stretches and was struck by some words that were shared with respect to Kamala Harris and her journey to the Vice Presidency. I was mid-stretch and wrote what I remembered so these words will mostly likely be paraphrasing. Kamala Harris spoke about how “I always believe in myself… I don’t always believe in others”. This is the journey of many. They look at something and they know they can do it but others who stand in the path, consciously or unconsciously, do not believe it and throw up arbitrary obstacles. In 1958, Clennon Washington King Jr. tried to enroll in the University of Mississippi’s graduate program in history. He was the first Black person to try to do so and, for his efforts ended up in a state asylum, apparently crazy for even thinking he could try, even though he held a bachelor and master’s degree and had been teaching in various colleges. In this day and age, leadership may not advance African American employees because they believe African American employees need to work on “developing soft skills while demonstrating technical proficiency“, while assuming that all other employees are proficient at both. People may throw out statements that women cannot hold positions of power because they are too emotional, apparently oblivious of the successful women in power, and the men who did just fine and embraced their emotions. It is a relief to know that we are not putting people in asylums for daring to try to be the first to do something, not because they want to be first, but because they want to do it and believe they can. However, we still have a ways to go.
It is understandable that many choose to not take the road of being first, because many who are the first are subjected to more scrutiny. A second thing I heard during my news-stretch was “if you are first, we will pick you apart”. This may be our unconscious attempts to rationalize why that person is only just now becoming the first. We may be seeking to find justification that this has happened, not because of any biases, unconscious or not, that we may have, but because that demographic just cannot do the job. If, for example, that first is a woman, it may not matter that many of the men who came before her were terrible at that job or that she is better at that job than the standard expectation of the men who have held that job. We may expect her to do the impossible, to breathe without oxygen, in order to prove herself.
We all have biases, including those among the underrepresented. Recognizing, accepting, and being mindful of this this is the first step. Then question your assumptions about the status quo and ask yourself if there is evidence to support your assumption. In the case of firsts, the answer will likely be no. Imagine what we lose out on because of our gut-feeling based assumptions. We may never have known an NBA hero could be 5’3″ or that someone who is 5’7″ could win the slam dunk contest. Or we may still be telling ourselves that the lack of diversity – age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and on, and on – in the Vice Presidential roles is, without evidence, a reflection of who can do the job. It brings me joy to know that, with Kamala Harris in office, it is not the case any more. So, I am celebrating that crushed obstacle. It’s a big deal.