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OpEd: Black. Female. Silenced in the US Senate.

When Senator John McCain openly chastised Senator Kamala Harris during Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I was shocked, but not surprised.

The 80-year-old GOP Senator interrupted and scolded the 52-year-old former Prosecutor for not allowing the witness to answer, which was the same line used against her by the Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) last week when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified before the committee.

Burr “suspended” Sen. Harris in mid-sentence, and used his powers as chairman to allow the witness to answer, prompting serious eye rolls but compliance from Senator Harris.

Image: Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., questions Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the investigation into contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russia, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2017. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Interestingly, neither Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) or Susan Collins (R-ME), who also serve on the Committee, were interrupted. Neither of their lines of questioning was reported by the media as “aggressive” “lambasting” or “pummeling” the witnesses. Neither was referred to as having “hysteria.”

They both moved through their questions quickly and wanted brief answers from the witness just like Harris.

The challenge for all committee members was that each Senator only gets five to seven minutes to both ask and have their questions answered and so Harris, like all her colleagues who went before her, did what they all do—yet she alone was singled out and reprimanded like a committee intern.

I wish I could say this behavior in the United States Senate was startling. It is not.

The U.S. Senate is one of the most elite and one of the whitest male power circles left in the world.

In a corporate America that remains overwhelmingly white and male at the C-Suite and executive levels, it’s hard being a woman - and even harder being a women of color.

Related: Sen. Kamala Harris reacts to scolding by GOP senators

Don’t take my word for it, look up the numbers in the year 2017. Women of color are the least represented in these industries and institutions while our Caucasian sisters are making great strides.

As a black female attorney who worked on the House Republican Congressional Committee staff in the late 1990s as the lone black female and interned in the U.S. Senate for former Sen. Pete Wilson (R-CA), I can tell you that both were then—and remain today—white male bastions of power and control.

A black woman’s presence is uncommon and likely unsettling for men like McCain and Burr. They just aren’t comfortable with strong women who cut to the chase and call a “thing a thing” as Iyanla Vanzant likes to say.

Carol Mosely Braun (elected 1992) and now Kamala Harris (elected in November), are the only black women to ever be elected to the Senate, which has elected just 50 women in its history since 1789. Currently the 115th Congress has 21 female senators out of 100 (that’s 21%), one more than both the 113th and 114th congresses, and an all-time high. The GOP has just five female Senators and the Democrats, a record sixteen.

Presently, Senator Harris is the only black woman in that group, which includes two other women of color in Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Being the lone black female Senator is both historic and fraught with peril because anything she says is going to be scrutinized and viewed through a historic stereotypical lens—the same lens our nation’s first black first lady was viewed under when she came on the national scene in 2008 as a Senator’s wife.

Related: Sen. Kamala Harris, Daughter of Howard University, Comes Home

As I wrote back in 2008, Michelle Obama swiftly found herself victim of being nothing more than “Black. Female. Accomplished. Attacked.” when she was portrayed on the cover of The New Yorker with an afro and machine gun, fist bumping her husband who was depicted in Muslim garb. That cover outraged black women everywhere because we all have experienced such limiting and inaccurate stereotypes in the workplace and in everyday life. We share the burden of both race and gender, but get none of the benefits of being a “white” woman or a black “man.”

The attacks on Mrs. Obama (although very popular with the American people) lasted all throughout the eight years of her husband’s presidency. She was called “angry.” She was called racist names and likened to “apes.” But she handled it all with grace and class, just as did Senator Harris when she was “suspended” or, told to be silent.

Image: Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., reacts during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP

Yet the difference is stark. Mrs. Obama was in a non-elective office as First Lady. Senator Harris is an elected United States Senator with voting power who represents tens of millions of constituents in America’s largest state of California and she should be treated as such.

Stereotypes have power and they carry consequences. Senator Harris is an equal among her peers, she is not a young power-hungry committee counsel looking to make a name for herself. She is a US senator and she deserves the same respect and decorum given other US Senators.

These attempts to “silence” or “quiet” her are offensive and the Republican party needs to check itself. The GOP is an aging, old, angry white man party. I have been saying this since I was in my twenties, and was a proud member of the GOP.

Regrettably, the face of the modern GOP is President Trump (71 years old yesterday), and Senator McCain (80 years old). Clueless. Out of touch. Cantankerous and completely unable to handle a smart, savvy, attractive black woman being a peer in the good-old-boys club of the US Senate.

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