McGrath: Powerful Women of Color Are Speaking. Listen Up.


Adam Schultz

Courtesy of Biden for President

By Mackenzie McGrath, Opinion Writer


I tolerate being interrupted, apologize profusely for taking up space and contain my anger in public to avoid being seen as an “angry woman” — and I’m white. So imagine how much more I would have to endure as a Black and Indian American woman under scrutiny by tens of millions of viewers. That’s Sen. Kamala Harris’s situation. Her debate with Vice President Mike Pence last week had the second largest audience in VP debate history.

Several times, while smiling and nodding her head, Harris spoke up after Pence interrupted her, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” This statement has brought on significant media attention and generated a discussion on behaviors and attitudes towards women — especially powerful women of color. Since Sen. Kamala Harris became the first Black woman on a major party ticket for president, I’ve seen how differently the media portrays her compared to her male counterparts. Harris’s name, voice and appearance have been attacked and commented on by GOP members via Twitter and news outlets. Can you remember an article discussing how annoying Pence’s voice is, or what brand of a suit he was wearing?

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a powerful speech this July regarding an instance in which her colleague in the House of Representatives, Ted Yoho, cornered her and called her a “f—— b—-.” Yoho defended himself without apologizing directly. He noted that he has two daughters, has been married for nearly five decades and is “very cognizant” of his language regarding women. I don’t see how those derogatory terms fit into his claim. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez summarized her speech by saying, “I am someone’s daughter, too.”

From name-calling to slut-shaming, these political women of color are no stranger to prejudice. An online study found that women of color received more negative media attention than their white colleagues, with tone and content more likely to contain negative connotations. The morning after the VP debate, President Trump referred to Harris as a “monster” and “totally unlikeable.” He also has a habit of calling women in power “nasty.” What exactly makes them “nasty”? They are powerful, outspoken women — including the Prime Minister of Denmark, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, White House correspondent April Ryan and now Harris.

While Biden and Trump openly yell at each other in settings as formal as presidential debates, women have been deemed “too emotional” and even “hysterical” or “crazy” for such behavior. Harris’s team created a strategy for her debate, assuming she would likely be perceived as the stereotypical “angry Black Woman.” Harris has to walk on eggshells to avoid being seen as too aggressive. Women candidates must maneuver around negativity and confrontational comments so as not to be punished by voters. In response to Harris’s occasional smirks and chuckles at Pence’s comments during the debate, Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote, “She is applauded for her knowledge, but [focus groups] just don’t like her ‘condescending reactions.’” Where is Pence’s condemnation for his unamused expressions, interruptions and head shakes?

Eric Trump favorited a tweet which was also deleted, that referred to Harris as a “whorendous pick,” meanwhile,T-shirts with the slogan “Joe and the Hoe” were selling on Amazon. “If there are any questions on how to sleep your way to the top, Kamala will have an advantage,” read a recently deleted Facebook post shared by a Republican staffer. Fox News reported, “Extramarital affair with Kamala Harris? Former San Francisco mayor, 84, admits it happened,” and the concludes that Harris slept her way to her position. Comments on the article included, “If this revelation comes as a surprise to anyone outside of San Francisco, then naivety is the new hallmark of the politically astute. How else does anyone think that Kamala Harris could have risen to her political prominence in such a short time?”

Imagine having your undeniable hard work and career successes be erased in favor of the false notion that you simply slept with the right people to get where you are. Rumors like these imply that being educated and intelligent is not a viable explanation for the success of a woman of color without sex in the equation. When have we asked male politicians who they have slept with for their positions? When have we referred to these men as “escorts”?

Women are not exempt from this kind of sexist thinking or misogynistic, racist remarks. It was another woman that referred to Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels.” While many women admired Harris’s refusal to be interrupted, others continued to shame women via Twitter, “This whole ‘I’m Speaking’ is obnoxious.” We must not uphold this culture of tearing women down for standing up for themselves. We as women must decide now to change the institutions we were raised in and change these core beliefs and prejudices against all women. Your feminism is not feminism if it does not include all women of color, not to mention queer, trans, poor or incarcerated women.

Our deep-seated hate for successful women comes from the toxic belief that “there can only be one woman at the table.” Start forming the habit of protecting fellow women and yourself the way Harris did in the VP debate. Electing a Black and South Asian American woman as vice president would be a good first step.

We cannot afford to harm ourselves and other women of color any longer. Pull up a chair and save a spot for another woman at the table. There’s plenty of room, and we have work to do.


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