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IS SEEING BELIEVING?

Kamala Harris and me at a fundraiser, March 29, 2019

By Joan Steinau Lester

"I like Kamala Harris but I don't think she's electable," three female friends recently told me.

"But Hillary got three million more votes than he did," I answered each time, shocked by the cynicism of these veteran feminists. "Plus it's a new day. Look what gains women made in 2018--"

"I hate to say it, people aren't ready," each woman insisted.

"That's exactly what people said in 2007 about Barack Hussein Obama." I sputtered. "Even lots of African Americans didn't think he could win. Including my own son!"

"A woman just can't be seen for who she really is," they said sadly. "He'd roll right over her."

"Just like he rolled over Nancy Pelosi? She's the only politician who's gotten the best of Trump. If you keep saying Kamala can't win it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy!"

"No," they said. "We can't risk it."

The basis for this doubt is still unconscious bias, the "isms" which wiggle into every part of our lives. We see it in mass media when Elizabeth Warren, a charismatic speaker, is portrayed in print as a boring, nerdy schoolmarm, while white males in the Democratic primary are lauded as seasoned elders or dynamic new faces.  

And the woman we call President Harris in our house gets less press than her white male peers. As do the other female candidates.

Equally disturbing is the way so many women, like any subdued group, absorb the pervasive lies about ourselves. When the prevailing narrative shows only men as real players, it's easy to internalize that assumption. I remember when Shirley Chisholm first mounted a presidential campaign in 1972 and how she seemed such an oddity. I have to confess, to my shame, that I found her quixotic, even slightly embarrassing.

I wanted to look away.

Since then I've grown and so, fortunately, have millions of others, willing to expand our thinking so we can transcend the old habit of slotting people into roles by race and gender. Yet because our presidential experience has been exclusively with men, it's difficult to fully imagine a woman in that powerful position. Especially a woman of color.

How do we get beyond the entrenched paradigm? The young people, like youth everywhere, are helping us, demanding we break ancient boundaries. Push beyond what we've known before.

 When I was young, in 1962 I, a white woman, married an African American man. The overwhelming majority of Americans then opposed "interracial marriage"; it was still illegal in 27 states. Even my own adored, liberal parents refused to attend our wedding. My mother cautioned that if I went ahead, "Your father might die from a heart attack. Remember, he grew up in Kentucky." My husband's folks also didn't come, his father warning, "If you mess with white girls, son, you could get yourself killed."

In the end, nobody died. Instead, as more and more people saw couples like us and discovered that the earth did not shatter, nor the heavens fall, they could release their apocalyptic fears.

If we ever want to break the male stranglehold on the highest office in the land, we will have to take a leap to imagine a different prototype.

We've all grown up hearing, "Seeing is believing."  Yet at this critical juncture in our democracy it's time to turn the old adage on its head, and know that right now, "Believing is seeing."

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