Alexandra Trahan hasn’t felt it yet, hasn’t let herself, not amid the uncertainty, the Capitol violence, President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to overturn the election. She’ll feel it Wednesday, she says, when she hears those words: “Madam Vice President.”
Trahan, a junior at Howard University and vice president of the school’s College Democrats, said that when the election was called and Kamala Harris made history as the first woman and woman of color to ascend to the vice presidency, all she could muster was muted relief. Not awe, not elation, not the jubilance she thought she would. An extraordinary swearing-in is imminent, yet in this era of unprecedented crises she feels this, too, is tenuous.
When Trahan watches the inauguration Wednesday, she hopes it will unleash everything she has been too afraid to feel.
“As a Black woman … I know it’s incredibly hard for people who look like me to achieve what Kamala has,” she said. “Those change-making feelings, I guess you could call them, I won’t feel those until inauguration, until I see it happening in real time, until I know it’s set in stone. To say I’m on edge … is an understatement.”
In any other moment, in any other year, it would have been all about her: Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first woman of color, the first woman of South Asian descent to hold the office of vice president. Harris has risen higher in the country’s political leadership than any woman before, yet this moment centuries in the making has been eclipsed by a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
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“It’s definitely casting a shadow, and distracting us from the fact that there’s a historic event happening … (which) is of huge importance to Black women and particularly Black girls coming up,” said Dawn Dow, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland-College Park.
Harris’ ascension marks a pivotal moment in women’s pursuit of power and voice. Some political experts and young women of color feel Harris’ inauguration may finally allow them to savor what has been won.
“This moment, where a woman will have an elected seat at the most powerful table in the world, is important both substantively and symbolically,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “Those young girls of color can see themselves in her, which opens up a world of possibilities about what they can aspire to.”
‘Someone like me’
Neha Aluwalia, a junior at Rutgers University majoring in political science, plans to watch the inauguration with her twin sister and mother in Plainsboro, New Jersey. It’s fitting, given they were all virtually together when Harris won: last time, on a group text, while Aluwalia was grocery shopping.
“I was crying under my face mask,” she said. “And you could see people around me were also seeing it at the same time. It was surreal.”
But Aluwalia says there hasn’t been a proper moment to relish the victory, and while she has trepidation about the possibility of more violence, she hopes Wednesday will finally offer a moment to revel in what has been achieved.
“We didn’t really get to celebrate,” she said. “It was kind of just, ‘OK, they won, move on to the next crisis.'”
This was the first presidential election in which Aluwalia, an Indian American and an immigrant, was old enough to vote. To see a woman of color, someone whose grandparents speak the same language as her own, rise to such a powerful position gives her hope for her own future. Harris’ victory speech, she said, acknowledged what she deeply felt:
“To the woman most responsible for my presence here today, my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts,” Harris told her supporters. “I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women, who throughout our nation’s history, have paved the way for this moment.”
Aluwalia said she cried during that, too.
Harris’ win goes beyond symbolism. Experts say she brings to the table a set of experiences different from anybody who has ever served as vice president. Those experiences, they say, will inform policy, with Biden indicating Harris’ voice will be influential.
“He has already said she’ll be the last person in the room when big important decisions are being made,” Walsh said.
Aluwalia hopes to one day be in one of those rooms. She plans to attend law school and eventually run for office. It’s meaningful, she said, to see Harris embrace her background on a national stage.
‘I can be anything I want when I grow up’
Ava Gripp, 7, will wear a special outfit when she watches inauguration Wednesday: pearls – which Harris often wears as a nod to her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha – and a T-shirt inscribed with the phrase “I’m speaking,” which Harris used to admonish Vice President Mike Pence for interrupting her during the vice presidential debate.
Gripp remembers what her father said after Harris won.
“(He told me) that I can be anything I want when I grow up,” she said.
For parents of Black children, experts say high-profile examples of Black achievement can be hard to find. Harris’ highly visible position of leadership is an important marker.
“It’s a very prominent example of Black accomplishment,” said Dow, author of the book “Mothering While Black: The Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood.” Black parents want to have their children “believe that they can do whatever they want to do in the world … but unfortunately, our society doesn’t necessarily have a ton of examples of that readily available.”
Political experts say young girls and women will watch Harris lead, but they’ll also observe the unique challenges she faces as a woman and a woman of color in a position that until now has been held by an uninterrupted line of white men.
When Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, one-quarter of media coverage of Harris was racist or sexist, according to a report from Time’s Up Now, which advocates to end harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
A historic moment, but just the beginning
When Trahan was young, people in her town of Lafayette, Louisiana, would tell her, “Alex is going to be the first Black woman president.”
But she heard other things, too. Like white people regularly saying the N-word.
Trahan’s past is emblematic of the contradictions young girls, especially young girls of color, face in a culture that encourages their ambitions while simultaneously cutting them down.
“It doesn’t happen every day where you can connect to someone at such a high level, but at the same time you have to kind of bring it back into reality,” she said. “You have to realize what times we’re in. … There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Trahan, who is studying political science, community development and secondary education at Howard, plans to be a part of that work, inspired by Harris, whom she has now met twice: once in the halls of the Capitol, when she was interning for
Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., and another time at Howard, Harris’ alma mater, which she visited during the campaign.
Both times she said she was struck by Harris’ warmth and authenticity. Now, hours away from Harris taking the second highest office in the land, she’s struck by something else.
“It’s really inspiring, yet also humbling, to know that this woman I met casually is now the second most powerful person in the United States,” Trahan said. “It really shows me that I can achieve my incredibly big dreams of possibly becoming secretary of education one day.”
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