Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Calif.) performance at the vice presidential debate is going to live rent-free in my mind for a long time. It was a historic moment — for women, for Black people, for people of Asian descent and for people at the intersections of all of those identities — to see a woman of color speaking truth to power at another pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
Perhaps this was the version of Harris that many had expected to see in the presidential primaries: sharp, steady and uncompromising. Out of the gate, she condemned the Trump White House’s handling of the coronavirus as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration.” She attempted to stop Vice President Mike Pence in his tracks as he interrupted her with a simple: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” She was ready; she persisted. She made it look easy. This was the Harris we’d seen so many times in viral clips of her skewering her colleagues in Congress. Her plain truth-telling says enough to shut you down. But her body language takes it to the next level: the head tilts, the side-eyes, the squinty eyes, the lean-ins and lean-backs, the laughs of disbelief, the full-throated exasperation in the face of straight-up foolery.
Black women everywhere have mastered this body language. We use it at home, in the office, at grocery stores and department stores, with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. These slight maneuvers especially resonate with any Black kid whose mother has given them that look in a store. With any Black co-worker who has shot that look across the room with another Black colleague, a knowing acknowledgment of “damn, here go that bullshit.” These looks are a silent showing of our displeasure — and simmering internal rage — when someone is lying or insulting our intelligence.
“Black women everywhere have mastered this body language. These looks are a silent showing of our displeasure — and simmering internal rage — when someone is lying or insulting our intelligence.”
Pence used his time — and a lot of Harris’ — to lie, evade questions and gaslight the American people about the state of the country. He remarked that it “was a privilege to be on the stage” with Harris, the kind of empty compliment that was immediately overridden as he interrupted her at every turn. Perhaps Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart said it best: “He has mastered the breathy earnestness of saying nothing.”
Pence’s performance reminded me of so many workplace stories and experiences I’ve heard about and witnessed over the years. A mediocre white man in a position of power versus an astute Black woman clamoring to be heard and to rise to the top. Too often, you are damned if you call out racism and incompetence and damned if you don’t. In corporate America, these scenarios are everyday occurrences. An August report from women’s advocacy group Lean In stated 40% of Black women said they need to provide more evidence to prove they’re competent at work, compared to 28% of white women and 14% of all men.
“I don’t think people understand how constant and numerous the barriers facing Black women are at work,” said Raena Saddler, a vice president at Lean In.
As expected, Harris has already faced a litany of racist and sexist responses to her debate performance, with President Donald Trump calling her a “monster” and a panel of undecided voters on Fox News saying she was “abrasive” and “condescending.”
Harris was always going to be on a tightrope in her performance, hoping to avoid the “angry Black woman” trope that has plagued Black women everywhere for years. Dozens of Black women on social media acknowledged the mental gymnastics it takes to contort your body, voice and statements to limbo, somersault and Simone Biles your way past this trope.
“She’s done everything — local office, statewide office, federal office, now being named to the highest office. The best schools. Everything,” Glynda Carr, CEO and co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a group that advocates for Black women in politics, told HuffPost in August. “And still the perception of her, for many, is ambitious, angry and nasty.”
And hell — I don’t know any Black woman who isn’t angry, tired and filled with rage right now. There are enough things stacked against us. And at least, for one night, Harris effortlessly showed off, as author Brittney Cooper puts it, “eloquent rage” and poise, on the national stage — and reminded us how hard it can be to stick the landing.