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We all deserve to be seen in this world as we are

March 12, 2021
  • This article was originally published on March 7, 2021 by The Sheaf 

By Vaidehee Lanke

On Jan. 20, as Kamala Harris, the first female, Black American and person of South Asian descent to hold the office was sworn in as the vice president of the United States, my eyes were fixated on two small girls in the corner.

Kamala Harris’ grandnieces will grow up with their grandaunt as vice president. To them, and so many young people globally, the idea of a woman, and particularly a woman of colour, occupying spaces of power will be normal. That is the world we must strive for.

Growing up, I didn’t see myself — an immigrant and woman of colour —  reflected in the world around me.

Whether it was movies, TV shows or music, very few pieces of entertainment spoke to me, and very rarely did they ever speak to all of me.

Not relating to the media that seems to speak to most of your peers does something to you. As an immigrant, I wrongly felt I had to do more to fit into the society I was living in. As if watching more iCarly or listening to all the Justin Bieber songs would help the situation.

But the problem persisted beyond entertainment. In academia, at all levels of government, on the boards of acclaimed organizations and in technology leadership, I didn’t see myself.

It is one thing to not relate to a film, but a whole other story when you don’t see yourself or your life story reflected in positions of leadership. It makes you feel as if there are some spaces you can’t occupy, no matter how hard you work.

You feel the burden of assimilation more deeply, and unconsciously end up limiting your dreams to fit into the mold.

Only many years later did I learn what this problem was called — a lack of representation.

Giving a name to an issue that had so deeply imprinted itself into my life was life changing. It made me realize I wasn’t the only one feeling unseen in this world. Many more people, including young women and women of colour, were also in a constant search for representation.

Ever since, I’ve been searching for meaningful representation, for all of us, and making a point of celebrating it.

In this past year, I have come across more examples of representation than ever before, and each story has changed how I look at the world.

Last year, for the first time in my undergraduate journey, I had a female computer science professor. She was incredibly passionate about her research, deeply committed to her students and a very engaging educator.

Her passion for computer science and her never-ending belief that we all belonged in computer science made me and other students feel like we too could belong in a field that for so long hadn’t seen us.

In this past year, public health briefings have become a staple. Helming the pandemic response across the country have been a number of female chief medical and public health officers.

From Canada’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam, to Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, to British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and others, this leadership has guided our country through a pandemic.

In a world where leadership is still sometimes seen as being an exclusive male trait, these public health officers, through their own leadership, have helped redefine the archaic definition of who can be leaders.

I still remember the day when Harris was announced as the democratic nominee for vice president. On that humid August afternoon, I clutched my phone looking at the notification in complete awe.

Like the vice president’s mother, I too am an immigrant from India, and like her, I too am a woman of colour. For the first time in my entire life, I felt, in the smallest and yet most profound of ways, seen.

Of course representation doesn’t mean all barriers are dismantled, nor does it mean you have to support someone’s entire body of work, but it is a start. An important one that should draw attention to the lack of representation and kickstart the essential work of creating safe spaces for us all to exist, live and contribute in.

That is why this International Women’s Day, we must celebrate the incredible women who in this past, unprecedented year have made groundbreaking strides in representation through their work.

My deepest gratitude to them all. Because of their strength, I can now see myself in this world in a new light.