Kamala Harris’s vice presidential candidacy has represented not just an opportunity to break a political glass ceiling or tick off a box in the still too-long list of historic “firsts” that have yet to be realized.
I, like many other Black women, have frequently seen myself in Harris as she has spent the last few months navigating the highest-profile role of her life while constantly confronting misogynoir — a term coined by Northeastern University scholar Moya Bailey to describe the special blend of anti-Black racism and sexism that Black women recognize viscerally.
That racist misogyny has had a formidable opponent in Harris, who has continually struck back at the phenomenon that has caused Black women to be talked over, dismissed, demeaned, and ignored in the personal and professional spaces they occupy. By making America see her, she forces a reckoning with the way Black women have too frequently been rendered invisible.
Harris, of course, shattered multiple barriers by also being the first vice presidential nominee of South Asian descent. But her Indian heritage has not been used against her as a political blunt-force instrument the way her Blackness and gender have.
Take President Trump’s treatment of Harris as a prime example. After Harris’s debate last month with Vice President Mike Pence, Trump declared Harris to be “a monster," continuing a long tradition in this country of using dehumanizing language to refer to black people.
“She was terrible. I don’t think you could get worse,” Trump said, adding in a sexist trope for good measure: “And totally unlikable.”
This was not surprising from a president who has raised attacking Black women to an art form, from repeatedly telling Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota to go back to her own country, to insulting the intelligence of Representative Maxine Waters of California, to his repeated attacks on PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, which drew a joint condemnation from the National Association of Black Journalists and Journalism & Women Symposium.
But consider the broader reaction to Harris’s candidacy, including last month’s debate. Harris not only had to fend Pence’s propensity to talk over and interrupt her with a curt but effective, “I’m speaking.” She also had to demand equal time from moderator Susan Page after Page was also verbally steamrolled by Pence. I and other Black women felt that.
But pollster Frank Luntz, based on the reviews of a mostly-male focus group, declared Pence the debate winner “not because of what he talked about, but how he communicated.” Harris’s assertiveness was a turn-off, he said, demonstrating the line Black women must walk between demanding respect and being labeled “angry.”
And boy, have we had practice on that tightrope. While research shows men are far more likely to interrupt and talk over women, it’s worse for Black women. Studies in 2010 found that Black women are most likely to be unheard or go unnoticed altogether in a group setting. Put bluntly, Black women are often rendered invisible.
While watching Harris during her debate, I recalled the many times I’ve had to demand to be seen. I recalled when, as a litigation attorney in Boston, opposing attorneys arrived at my law office before a deposition. As I and an office assistant — who was white and male — came out to greet them, one lawyer thrust a stack of papers toward me and asked if I could make copies. When I passed the papers to the assistant and relayed the request, the lawyer offered an awkward apology.
I was reminded of the times I went to Suffolk Superior Court to argue civil cases, only to be asked by court staff if I was represented by counsel or if I was a defendant looking for the criminal division.
I remembered waiting in the green room at MSNBC before the coronavirus pandemic and being asked by other guests if there was coffee available or if I would be doing their makeup.
I thought of how often I’ve had to reintroduce myself to certain members of Congress I’ve interviewed numerous times because mine is a face they just can’t seem to remember.
I, like countless other Black women, understand that erasure. Harris, as she vies to occupy a space no other Black woman has, helps the rest of us be seen.