Kamala Harris and the stereotypes we place on Black women
When society responds to Black women’s presence, it tends to respond with discomfort, neglect, hostility, and expressions of danger. This public dismissal is consistent with the broad marginalization that Black women have encountered politically. In 1973 Dr. Mae King of Howard University called such marginalization “a policy of invisibility.”
President Trump’s rhetoric toward Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) continues the legacy of public shaming and insulting Black women. Trump’s hostility towards high-profile Black women is not limited to Harris: Throughout his presidency, Trump has tapped racist tropes in his efforts to attack Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Maxine Waters, and journalists April Ryan and Yamiche Alcindor. These interactions, whether via Twitter or during White House press events or campaign rallies, attempt to demean these women as incompetent. Upon Sen. Harris’s nomination, the President emphatically mispronounced her name as a means of showing indifference and disrespect while attempting to identify her as an “other.” Trump has also referred to Harris as incompetent and implied that she is possibly overbearing. If she were to become the first woman president, Trump stated, “You know what? People don’t like her. Nobody likes her. She could never be the first woman president. She could never be. That would be an insult to our country.” Following the only vice presidential debate, Trump continued the aggressive rhetoric towards Harris by stating that she was not only unlikeable, but she was a monster.
Trump’s language is consistent with stereotypes about Black women that date back to enslavement. These stereotypes formed to justify Black women’s unpaid forced labor and abuse during enslavement, while white women were forbidden to work and were told they were fragile and deserved to be protected. The stereotypes that evolved included that Black women lacked femininity and were overbearing therefore were not deemed worthy of love; they were not deemed intelligent but childlike; therefore, they need to be controlled by more intelligent whites. The sexuality of Black women was considered to be animalistic or hyper; therefore, it was their fault that white men sexually violated them. These stereotypes became seared into Americans’ imagination, with films such as “Gone with the Wind” and the television show “Amos and Andy.”
These stereotypes did not just stay in the imagination of Americans but were used to restrict the mobility of Black women and promote public policy that hindered economic development and access to better education and opportunities for career development. As a result, Black women still navigate these tropes every day. Dr. Moya Bailey refers to the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women face daily as misogynoir.
Misogynoir was on display during the Vice-Presidential debate. Like many Black women in the workplace, Harris was forced to walk a fine line of appearing competent while not appearing arrogant or responding to attacks on her record and ability in a way that would appear non-threatening. During the debate, Harris referred to the Presidential nominee by his first name to signal to viewers that she was a team player and that they were developing a relationship as peers and not one in which she was attempting to dominate with her own agenda. The most discussed aspect of the debate’s interpersonal aspect was the continued interrupting by Vice President Pence and him attempting to force Harris to respond to his redirection of the moderator’s questions. Harris consistently responded firmly, “I’m speaking” and did not use the pleasantry of asking Pence for permission to finish by stating, “may I finish.” In these moments, Harris revealed that this was one of many moments in her career that she had to respond to racialized mansplaining that Pence exhibited.
Like Harris, Black women face these stereotypes daily; they have not succumbed to them, but have continually resisted efforts to dehumanize and devalue their existence. Before Senator Harris’s nomination, Black woman within the Democratic Party organized and publicly stated that several Black women were qualified to be the vice-presidential candidates and that one of them should be selected. This type of collective activity is emblematic of Black women’s long history of resisting the hurtful tropes that continue to reside in our society and thwart Black women’s opportunities for leadership. Black women collectively said to Vice President Biden, the Democratic Party and media that Black women are capable, talented and will not be silent.
Upon the announcement that Senator Harris would be the vice-presidential nominee, Black women across the country braced themselves for the onslaught of the language of misogynoir and actions towards Senator Harris. Black women on social media celebrated and were prepared to defend Senator Harris and keep her accomplishments at the forefront to resist the expected narrative that she was an affirmative action selection.
However, it was Harris’s Democratic National Convention speech, which struck the most powerful blow against what was, and is, to come. She acknowledged her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., along with members of Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations known as the Divine Nine, and the alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as her family. In introducing herself to a broader audience, Senator Harris said powerfully and unequivocally that I love, I am loved, and I am not alone.
Pearl K. Dowe is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Oxford College of Emory University.
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