President Obama seems to have put his foot in his mouth by paying a woman a compliment. The woman in question is Kamala Harris and she is Obama’s choice for Attorney General. Strange times these, where telling someone they are good looking can get you into trouble. Once again, and this is getting more and more common, I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s observation that we are becoming identified more with what pisses us off rather than what we are ready to embrace.
While there is a case to be made against typecasting and its limitations, swinging the pendulum all the other way is extremely silly. Typecasting is very similar to how a person perceives a brand and is part of that thing we call knowledge. Humans are a thinking species, and thinking species make assumptions based on their experiences. That is the core of who we are. If we do not make inferences based on our observations, we are no better than animals.
There is a strong case to be made for both sides of the debate. While someone belonging to a group that is perceived in a positive light would like to highlight their affiliation, a person from a group that is a liability may like to play that affiliation down. In the end, it is a personal choice of the person who is branded, not the person making the branding.
The assertion of this choice is most visible when it comes to religious branding. Every religion has its own branding schemes, and it is the choice of its adherents whether they want to highlight the branding or not. But once they have decided to highlight the branding, they cannot complain if they are identified with the group they have CHOSEN to be attached to.
When I decide to place a crucifix on the dashboard of my car or wear a rosary around my neck, I am asking to be identified as a Catholic. So when I get that identification, I cannot cry foul. It is my choice and I must live with it.
On the other hand, there are marks of affiliations that we don’t have a choice over displaying. For example, our sex or our color. But that said, there are subtle ways in which we can send out signals that we don’t want to be associated with a typical member of that group. For instance, we can dress differently. We can also talk differently.
Make no mistake, this is about choice. A person chooses to be identified and another person chooses to identify.
When Ms. Harris decides to take care over her appearance, she is sending out a message and it says that she wants to be seen as good-looking. So when she is complimented on her good looks, she can’t cry foul. To her credit, she didn’t. But unfortunately, she didn’t come out and say that the President’s words didn’t matter either.
Ms. Harris is an example of a talented lawyer having made her way to the very top of her profession, she also happens to be a woman and good-looking. While her good looks may have given her some edge and her being a woman must have presented her with challenges, or vice versa; I am sure it is her talent and hard work that eventually got her to the top job in her profession. The President did mention her good looks, but at the end of his introduction and not the beginning, the important thing is that he recognized her work by giving her the highest job in the land.