Growing up, I wanted to be president. It was more than a childhood dream. In elementary school, I wrote anti-war, environmentalist letters to then President Bill Clinton. In middle school, my best friend gifted me a “future president” t-shirt as a joke, but I wore it earnestly. I would practice speeches in the bathroom mirror, and in preparation for my life of public service, I ran for elected positions of my high school class, volunteered in my town, and while my friends were reading the Harry Potter books, I was studying the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It wasn’t until the summer after my junior year of high school when I began to question if my dream would become reality. I was attending a summer program for high school students at Georgetown University, and the second I stepped on campus, I knew I was in over my head. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cut it academically. It was that I simply did not fit in. These kids were rich and well connected. Even my own roommate that summer was the daughter of a member of Congress. In contrast, I was just a girl from a small town in Connecticut, best known back home as the youngest kid of the Indian widower to the former town beauty queen.
No one that summer had to tell me not to share my future career aspirations with my peers. I was very much the metaphoric fish that suddenly found herself in a much bigger pond, and just like that, I doubted my capabilities.
At one point, my roommate was in an amicable debate about political electability with another student, because that is the type of thing high schoolers at Georgetown do, and he said something about intelligence as a top criteria for candidates for elected office. My roommate countered that there were other factors that mattered more. “Take Martine for example,” she said. “She’s super smart, but I would never vote for her.” She didn’t mean it to hurt. We got along great, actually, and we remained friends long after that summer. What she meant was that it didn’t matter how smart I was. It didn’t matter how much I studied or prepared. The voters of this great nation were simply not going to vote for me for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I’m not a White man.
That was the summer of 2000. Two months later, I was studying in my high school’s library during a free period when the school principal came in frantically asking for the television to be turned on. The library had one of only two televisions connected with cable in our small school. It was unusual for it to be used, let alone for Principal Story to seek it out, but he was beside himself. The librarian found the remote, and he turned on the news. I stood there with Mr. Story watching the World Trade Center towers smoldering on live TV.
The TV stayed on over the course of the day. Within the hour, the library was standing-room-only with students and teachers watching the news, crying, holding one another, and taking turns using the phone in the office to call their families to make sure that their relatives in New York were ok; some learning they were not.
Like many brown people in this country, I was horrified by what transpired on 9/11. I was scared. I felt betrayed. But, I couldn’t dwell on it. Because the fear of the actual attack morphed shortly thereafter into fear of my fellow Americans.
In the weeks after 9/11, my father put three American flag bumper stickers on his car and started wearing an American flag pin on his clothes every day. He hoped it would be enough to convince our predominantly White community, where he had lived for decades at that point, where I was a second-generation townie on my mother’s side, that we weren’t suddenly a threat. Like I said, part of the reason we were well-known in our town is because my father is an Indian man who married a local White woman. Before 9/11 that was unusual. After 9/11, it was a liability.
And just like that, the weight of reality hit my teenage self, not like a ton of bricks, but more like a smothering blanket. Those few months made me realize what I had been too naive to recognize; I was not going to be spectacular. I was going to be average, at best, because the safest way to get through life was to keep my head down as much as possible.
Ultimately, I did decide to be a public servant, albeit not an elected one. I have dedicated my life to public and nonprofit work, and I’m proud of what I have accomplished as an adult. But, I have missed my childhood confidence.
I remember feeling a small level of validation when President Obama was first elected in 2008, because not only did he become the first Black president, but also the first president with a non-European name. If Americans can accept Barack Obama as President, surely the name Martine Sadarangani is truly American too.
And then came Kamala.
Watching Kamala Harris on the campaign trail in 2020 had a profound impact on me. Here is a woman who, like me, was raised by an immigrant parent; who, like me, is half Indian; but who, unlike me, is seemingly unapologetic for who she is.
We hear all the time that representation matters, notably for kids. We want kids to see themselves in their teachers, pastors, community leaders. But, I have not had one woman of color teacher or religious leader in my entire life. My role models, as it turns out, have been largely male and/or White.
Even twenty years after my childhood dream was stamped out, and after working to build a successful career for myself otherwise, the election of a woman of color as Vice President made me stand up a little taller and made my voice a little clearer.
I love this country. More often than not, I tear up with pride upon hearing the national anthem. But, in loving this country, I don’t ignore the injustices and the terrible acts of our past and present. My love is what put me on a path of public service, and my love is what allows me to have faith that we can and will do better in the future, even in moments when I don’t feel that my country loves me back.
Leading up to yesterday, friends asked me if I was nervous about the inauguration. There was an attack on the Capitol Building just two weeks ago. Areas of DC are on lockdown, with a stronger military presence than the US has deployed in areas of active armed conflict. Shouldn’t we just have the inauguration indoors where our elected leaders can be kept safer and so that DC residents don’t need to be afraid?
Of course not. Demonstrations of love need to be stronger than demonstrations of hate.
And look at what this inauguration gave us. Just two weeks after white supremacists tried to cripple our democracy, and coming up on nearly a year into a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans, a Black and south Asian woman stood before the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, raised her brown-skinned hand and swore the oath of office for the Vice Presidency.
Regardless of your political views, that moment was a demonstration of love. It is a moment that brown-skinned women and girls all across the US can hold in our memories.
And on a day in the future when, despite our devotion to this country, we don’t feel that love returned, we can think back on the image of Kamala Harris being sworn in to a nationally elected office; we can see ourselves in her; and we can stay hopeful for our own futures.
Congratulations, Madam Vice President. And thank you.
[Artist credit: Lex Marie]