TORONTO -- Although U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday as the first Black woman and the first person of South Asian descent to be sworn into the role, scholars say she’ll be dealing with “unrealistic expectations'' like those placed on other racialized women in leadership.

But they urge social justice groups to keep demanding that Harris fights for them and not simply settle on surface-level representation. Scholars said she represents a pivot away from the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.

“This is a significant moment and we hope that there will be a shift,” Laura J. Kwak, an assistant sociology professor at York University, told in a phone interview.

“And I think Kamala Harris is bringing a lot of hope,” she said, noting similarities between Harris and the way U.S. President Barack Obama was a symbol of hope after the George W. Bush presidency.

“She has a lot on her shoulders because when you’re racialized and a woman, you’re not just a representative of your constituents,” Kwak said. “She’s called upon to represent women, Black women, South Asian women. And this is a lot to deal with.”

Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of social work echoed that, saying, “we expect a miracle. The expectation placed on racialized bodies who occupy these positions is unrealistic.”

“We hope that these people are saviours and can do what no others have done before,” said Hogarth, whose research focuses on race, racism and equity in Canada. She stressed that extremely high expectations were also put on America’s first Black president.

“The challenge with representation -- whether white or racialized -- there’s an expectation on one individual to change 500 years of changes in a matter of months,” she said.

Eve Haque, author of the book, “Multiculturalism Within a Bilingual Framework: Language, Race and Belonging in Canada,” said “people will always want more. They’ll always want more from women, people will want more from women of colour.”

They all warned that Harris’ symbolism -- as she becomes the highest-ranking leader of colour in the U.S. -- won’t go unnoticed by racists and white supremacists. And this would be especially the case for those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. and more broadly by those who’ve been emboldened by former president Donald Trump’s racism over the past four years.

“Racism is a problem and any racialized body [in the U.S and in Canada] that dares to occupy a senior-level position will come under attack,” Hogarth said. “The Biden administration has a rocky road ahead but this also tells us that Kamala Harris, in particular, has an uphill battle.”

Biden wins

Because Black and other communities of colour were largely responsible for the Biden-Harris ticket winning the U.S. election, scholars expect social justice groups to strongly push the administration on what they campaigned on.

“Holding our leaders to account and engaging rigorously is all part of a democratic society,” said Kwak, whose research examines the crossroads of politics, race, gender and representation. “I think we need to continue to listen to BLM [Black Lives Matter] and those calling for a more just society.”

Kwak said that like other racialized women in top government jobs, “the question is, really, how someone who is Black and Indian and woman will stand for policies that would disserve those communities?”

“Substantive representation -- the much more meaningful representation that this position could afford -- opens up the possibility for much more progressive directions,” she said. “However, if we look back at history, has that been more often the case?”

Kwak said that U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to assume the role, ended up enacting more oppressive policies against women, and while the Conservative Party of Canada courted more minorities during the early 2010s, Stephen Harper still alleged “Islamicism” was the greatest threat to Canada and his government passed the omnibus crime bill in 2012 that she said disproportionally affected Black and Indigenous people.

Scholars also noted that progressives were well aware of the limitations of the office of the U.S. vice-president, as well as Harris’ history as a moderate politician.

Haque said it’s no secret that Harris is far from a radical progressive, having spent years as a “law and order” Democrat during her time as California’s attorney general and then, as U.S. senator.

Based on her record, she doesn’t expect Harris to be a huge vehicle for paradigm shifts in policy. “You have to be careful in investing in radical change in institutions that are ultimately founded in white supremacy,” Haque said.

Biden, Harris in Washington


Haque, an associate professor who teaches languages and linguistics at York University, said so far in her career, Harris has deftly balanced her Black and south Asian identities publicly.

But Harris’ language and her actions will constantly be policed during her tenure, she said. “Is she Black enough? Is she brown enough? Does she mention her mom enough? What is her relationship with her dad and thereby what does that mean for her practices of Blackness?”

And now, on top of that, she’ll have to govern while balancing competing interests within the Black and Indian communities themselves -- neither which are monolithic nor share the same values or goals, Haque said.

She said the Indian diaspora in the U.S. includes strong supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Punjabis, Hindus and Muslims – some of whom were in bitter conflict with each other.

“So what precisely can she say that will keep them happy?” she said.

Conservative Indians in the diaspora criticized Harris for speaking out against the Indian government’s foray into the disputed region of Kashmir; while other Indians criticized Harris for not saying enough about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India, who have been protesting agricultural laws they argue will threaten their livelihood.

And on the other hand, Haque said there is a “whole pile of people who are going to be really happy it isn't Trump and his whole white supremacist coterie.”

Hogarth said Obama faced criticisms from both within and outside the Black community who felt “he didn’t do enough to advance the cause of Black people. And I think Kamala Harris will be faced with similar criticism and it is simply an unrealistic expectation.”

Instead, she urged people not to hold her to a higher standard because she’s a woman or racialized, but simply to what she promised during the campaign. Hogarth described Harris as simply one “part of what we have fought for,” in regards to people’s ongoing fight for women’s rights and equality.

“We have a female vice president who happens to be a racialized woman, and that for us is progress and that signals hope… it’s a win for us all.”

Kwak added, “what Americans are hopeful for is a different kind of future and I hope for that as well.”