Kamala Harris’ Debate Performance Was a Reminder of What Black Women Deal With Every Day

Kamala Harris

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) arrives for the debate with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

By Nsenga Burton

October 9, 2020

Sen. Harris could say absolutely nothing and people would still think she is an angry Black woman. 

The 2020 vice-presidential debate was a welcome change from what we witnessed last week: Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence sparred in a way that felt more like an actual debate of ideas rather than a WWE match. Pence even kicked off the debate saying it was a “privilege to be onstage” with his opponent.

Those niceties, of course, didn’t last. It wasn’t long before the vice president disrespected Harris and moderator Susan Page (of USA Today) by talking over them, refusing to answer questions, and outright lying. 

From the beginning, however, Harris was hobbled by how far she could go in her responses: She had to avoid falling into the racist and sexist trope of being “an angry Black woman,” as President Donald Trump has already characterized her shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. She needed to appeal to the broadest number of Americans and, more pointedly, not alienate white voters.

But here’s the thing: Harris could say absolutely nothing and people would still think she is an angry Black woman. 

RELATED: Biden and Harris Say They’re the Antidote to Trump’s Divisive Chaos

Black women are some of the most vilified and demonized individuals in the world, and often by people who have never come in contact with any of us in real life. Most people get their information about people and cultures they don’t have first-hand knowledge of from media, whose historical relationship with women in general and Black women specifically is precarious at best. Viewers often project their warped perceptions onto the bodies of Black women, pre-judging and boxing us into tiny categories, forcing us to alter our natural behaviors and often our appearance to appease their hang-ups. 

Harris’ treatment is not surprising. A new report from Time’s Up Now found one-quarter of media coverage of Harris “included racist and sexist stereotyping and tropes, from misogynoir like the harmful ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope to the racist so-called ‘birther’ conspiracy.” The analysis showed the senator was talked about more harshly by President Trump than other candidates, and two-thirds of media coverage focused on her ancestry as opposed to her accomplishments. In contrast, the amount of media coverage dedicated to Pence’s ancestry instead of his professional achievements was less than 5 percent. 

On the night of that historic debate, commentators were already focused on critiquing Harris’ behavior in the pre-programming leading up to the event. 

We’re talking about a vice-presidential candidate who has never lost her cool in any public forum, even as she has deconstructed and verbally decimated opponents in the Senate. That includes Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who tried to tangle with Harris over an anti-lynching bill she co-authored. We also can’t forget her interrogation of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault. 

In both cases, Harris maintained her composure as Paul behaved like an obstinate jackass and Kavanaugh raged and even cried.

Yet and still, people are focused on policing Harris’ behavior instead of the empowered white men whose behavior goes unchecked. (See Pence talking over not only the senator but also the moderator during the debate with impunity and without penalty.) 

Had commentators focused on what entitled white men could do to challenge stereotypical behaviors of white men—including  being difficult, bullies, clueless, dismissive and untrustworthy—then maybe the debate would have been more informative. Instead, Pence got to do him, because society seemingly accepts any type of behavior from white men as appropriate. (Kavanaugh, Dylann Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, and President Trump are all great examples of this.) 

RELATED: Harris Demanded Leadership From Pence and Trump on COVID, but Pence Has Failed on Public Health Crises Before

Wednesday night’s debate reminded Black women of what we have to do every day: contort ourselves and pretend like there is something wrong with us to appease mediocre white folks. Meanwhile, those with which there is something clearly wrong are upheld as the status quo. 

If Harris cannot even acknowledge or address the fact that Pence—an elected official—is blatantly lying to her and the American public, to appease white fragility, then what is the point? Harris brilliantly sidestepped landmines put in place to goad her into behaving badly, but how is that helpful to anyone other than the white establishment?

Dehumanizing Black women is as American as apple pie, and taking away Harris’ superpower—her cultural identity and communication style as a Black and South Asian woman—is par for the course. Harris’ hair was freshly coiffed, her neck adorned with pearls, and she exhibited a cool and calm demeanor, not challenging Pence enough on his repeated lies. She even smiled while asking him to stop interrupting her.

“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Harris said as she shook her head. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation, OK?” 

Even with all of that gentility on display, Trump still called her a “monster” on Thursday—twice.

Political strategists from both parties report neither candidate won the vice-presidential debate, but the fact that there was decorum was a win for America. I’m wondering, however, why a win for America too often comes at the expense of a Black woman’s humanity, authenticity, and ability to just be. 

READ MORE: Joe Biden Stutters. I Do Too. So Do More Than 3 Million Americans.


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