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Kamala Harris can use tonight's VP debate to subvert 'angry Black woman' tropes

We've heard about the way gender differences influence how we perceive candidates. But what happens when the woman is Black?
Image: Kamala Harris
Sen Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 26, 2019.Logan Cyrus / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence walk out onto the debate stage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, they'll do so separated by an unprecedented distance. On Monday, the Commission on Presidential Debates approved plans to have the candidates seated 13 feet apart, behind plexiglass barriers. Regardless of the fact that the Pence-Trump campaign opposes the barriers, this distance between them couldn't be more fitting.

Regardless of the fact that the Pence-Trump campaign opposes the barriers, this distance between them couldn’t be more fitting.

No matter how much she smiles behind that partition, there's a good chance Harris will come across to at least some Americans as yet another "angry Black woman." Ever since former Vice President Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate, the GOP has bristled at her voice and her demeanor, calling her "angry" and "horrible" and laughing at her name. As soon as she was named to the ticket, President Donald Trump joined in, deploying his favorite taunt for powerful women who challenge him: nasty.

But just as "nasty woman" was appropriated as a feminist rallying cry in 2016 and emblazoned across T-shirts and hats, we might also embrace anger.

We've heard about the way gender differences between political candidates influence how we perceive them — how smiles and sharp language register differently coming from a cisgender woman compared to a man. But what happens when the woman is Black? While there's some overlap, women of color are stereotyped differently from white women. While Harris is praised as a "gifted cross-examiner" who's been known to fluster Trump allies, as with so many Black women her facial expressions, tone and body language are likely to be used to paint her as hostile and aggressive. Former first lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to this treatment, and neither am I, nor is any other Black woman working in predominantly white spaces.

Historically, Black women have been subjected to what sociologist Patricia Collins refers to as "controlling images," or stereotypical thinking about us as mammies, jezebels and welfare queens. These stereotypes are used to denigrate and diminish us and our opinions about any number of topics, including our own health. The "angry Black woman" is just such a controlling image.

But what if Harris is angry? Aren't many of us right now? People of color have grown accustomed to accommodating "stereotype threat," meaning we try to avoid situations, behaviors and styles of dress or speech that are associated with racial stereotypes. This is problematic because it represents an additional burden for people of color who are constantly expected to check for and anticipate bias check, moderating ourselves in real time. Out of necessity, we've developed what the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness" or a "two-ness." We are Black and American, with the ability to see ourselves through both lenses.

Harris is very conscious of this challenge. She code-switches better than Cassius Green in "Sorry to Bother You." She understands fully the power of dropping a Tamil word in a speech and how to discuss her record as a state attorney general when chatting with Hillary Clinton — but not necessarily with Black audiences concerned about police reform. Code-switching comes in handy; it helps people fit in and reach others from a distance. She understands the difference between declaring she's "tough on crime" compared to "smart on crime." Sure, this is politically expedient, but that's not necessarily the same as insincere or inauthentic. People are varied, and we can appreciate someone who seems sensitive to how the same policy affects our lives in different ways.

But while Harris' ability to code-switch can be a political asset, the fact that she has to censor her emotions — her anger — as a Black woman is, well, infuriating.

It's not surprising that I relate more with Harris right now than her rival across the aisle — or plexiglass. For decades, American politics has been dominated by white people, most of them white men. People like me had to find ways to identify with these politicians who were, supposedly, representing our interests. Now, the tables have turned.

I identify with Harris as a Black woman. I'm not multiracial or the child of immigrants, and I didn't grow up in a home that embraced Christian and Hindu traditions. Identifying with Harris doesn't suggest sameness. There is a tremendous amount of diversity within the Black community, including political thinking and interests. I'm drawn to many of her political positions, but not all of them, and celebrate her standing as the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.

But I also identify with her anger. I think many of us do. Pence, cleanshaven, with a short classic side part, pale skin and broad shoulders, speaks on behalf of Middle America. White voters are surely better able to identify with Pence than I am. There are plenty of white liberals and progressives who can identify with his whiteness but are offended by his politics. There are more still, I suspect, who are offended by his steely demeanor and refusal to acknowledge basic truths in the face of ever-multiplying social, health, environmental and economic crises.

Intersectional identities — I’m a cisgender woman and I’m also Black, for example — complicate the identity politics discussion.

At the end of the day, we want strong candidates who are relatable. Identity politics assumes this desire is rooted in a desire for sameness. Intersectional identities — I'm a cisgender woman and I'm also Black, for example — complicate the identity politics discussion. But we might also question assumptions about what we identify with and at what times and with which goals in mind.

Right now, voters of all identities are outraged and exasperated with the status quo. On the more progressive side, we can debate why exactly white people are at Black Lives Matter protests and whether they'll keep turning out, as well as whether they should. But the fact is that there has been record white support for and participation in anti-racist protests across the country — including Middle America. You don't have to be Black to identify with anger.

Few white evangelicals and even fewer Proud Boys will be able to relate to Sen. Kamala Harris tonight. Yet I hope an ever-growing section of America can. Of course, Black women aren't always angry. But when we are, we should be able to show it without worrying about offending white sensibilities. Harris is Black and a woman and, I believe, angry. And that's a good thing for America.