It’s hard to break glass ceilings while walking on a tightrope. But in her historic debate appearance on Wednesday, that’s exactly what Sen. Kamala D. Harris had to do.
The plexiglass was also an onstage reminder of the barriers that non-White women face when vying for political power in this country.
The stakes felt high Wednesday night in what was already a consequential campaign, and not just because President Trump recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Harris had to perform a delicate balancing act, one tasked to women of color especially. We have to be prepared, but not sound clinical. We need to be likable. We must appear experienced, yet humble. Black women in particular need to be a little “sassy,” but not too aggressive, lest we are not seen as feminine. Black women especially have to be seen to be tough, but we aren’t allowed to be angry, even if our anger is justified in a country that too often silences us.
Chris Wallace, the Fox News journalist who moderated last week’s debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, was roundly slammed for allowing that event to go off the rails with insults and mistruths. Critics were left with plenty of ammo to argue that these debate formats do little to help promote healthy democratic discourse. The Trump-Biden debate was also a real-time reminder these televised events are a platform for candidates to put on a show, in the hopes of raising money. In her breakout primary debate, the Harris campaign brought in $2 million after a performance that included challenging Biden’s record on school busing. But as Harris’s own presidential campaign progressed, some donors threatened to pull their cash if she didn’t do something “attention grabbing.” After last week’s debate, Biden raked in $21 million in donations, the most ever for his campaign in one day. Will Harris’s audition for the role of vice president capture significant donor dollars in a society that loves to tell Black women that we are worth less than others?
Harris came out prepared for her history-making night, citing facts and figures about covid-19: the number of Americans dead, “Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in 5 businesses closed.”
Like the prosecutor she used to be, she put forth her case, this time not to a judge and jury but to the American people. “Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28, as opposed to March 13, what they knew, what you might’ve done to prepare,” she said of the administration’s record on the virus, while looking directly into the camera. “They knew, and they covered it up.” She reminded voters of her record as California’s attorney general and as a U.S. senator. She also pivoted nimbly; for example, when Pence waxed on about the Trump administration and the military, Harris bought up Trump’s record of insulting military veterans and POWs.
But it was striking just how hard Harris had to fight to be heard while on the biggest stage in her career so far. Pence interrupted Harris 16 times by NBC News’s count. Harris’s retort, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking. ’Kay?” will surely be one for the ages.
There was something distressing and insidious about how moderator Susan Page allowed Pence to blow through his allotted time but cut into Harris’s time to speak. Page admitted at one point that Pence had spoken for more time than Harris. Think about that: The supposed authority in the debate acknowledged her failure, or unwillingness, to rein Pence in. For Black women, this was, in prime time, like watching Whiteness and the patriarchy at work. Pence’s interruptions of Page and the way he plowed through her attempts to silence him showed his disrespect for her. But the way Page more aggressively tried to limit Harris’s time was all too familiar in how White women can also be complicit in silencing Black women. Americans love to make empowering memes and sound bites showing powerful Black women fighting to reclaim their time, and yet time and space are sometimes the last thing America wants to wants us to have, even when we play by the rules.
Harris pushed back at both Page and Pence, and tenaciously fought to make her case for a Biden presidency. Harris made walking that tightrope look easy. But I wish Black women didn’t have to work so hard. I yearn for an America where non-White women don’t have to battle for the bare minimum: to be allowed to speak.