October 12, 2020

ST. HILAIRE | “Mr. Vice President, I Am Speaking”

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Last Wednesday night, after scarfing down dinner and rushing through my homework, I took a quick shower and settled in for the Vice Presidential Debate. My popcorn was popped, my pajamas were on and my friends and I huddled around a MacBook Air to witness yet another spectacle. My expectations were low … for Vice President Mike Pence. After watching how President Donald Trump handled the first Presidential Debate, I didn’t allow myself to expect class, couth or civility from his Vice President. I would not allow myself to be disappointed to the degree I was on Sept. 29.

I did, however, have high expectations for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). As a Black woman who hopes to make space for herself in government some day, I had a lot riding on Sen. Harris’ performance. She was giving the world a taste of what America would look like if Black women held such esteemed offices. As a Black woman she couldn’t do a bad job, she was representing us. They will judge all Black women who run in the future in relation to Sen. Harris, that’s a fact. She wasn’t just making history, she was molding the future.

I am currently reading Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper. Chapter eight, “Orchestrated Fury” discusses the concept of respectability politics and its death on President Trump’s Inauguration Day. Dr. Cooper defines respectability politics as “the belief that Black people can overcome many of the everyday, acute impacts of racism by dressing properly and having education and social comportment.”

The Vice Presidential Debate was more than an opposition of issues, it was more than a question of liberalism and conservatism, or taxes and policy. It was another display of respectability politics, but this time in the face of white-male-chauvinist politics. Harris’ curt responses to Pence’s unsuccessful attempts to model Trump’s tactic of speaking over and interrupting the opponent was a presentation of respectability politics on the national stage and an insight into Harris’ personal “rage-management project,” as Cooper calls it. As a Black woman, she was expected to avoid anger at all costs, lest she be classified as the angry Black woman candidate. So, instead she used the greatest tool in her arsenal, a phrase that was both firm but polite: “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”

As a Black woman and as an American I was impressed; no, I was proud. I was proud to see Harris up there defying stereotypes. She skirted around every trap Pence placed for her. She resisted anger and quieted her rage. Watching her eloquent handling of the situation made me think back to the slow but intense anger I feel when I am interrupted by a white-male-peer who decided that my opinions aren’t as salient as his. Sen. Harris was interrupted in front of the American people while debating why she deserves to serve in the second highest office in the country. If the stakes are so much higher, is it unreasonable to assume that her level of anger was higher too? Mine would be.

Despite the high stakes situation, Harris did what I sometimes fail to do. She kept it together, she didn’t let warm tears prick at her eyes, she didn’t slowly get quieter as if to phase herself out of the conversation, she didn’t accept that her time would be cut short by this man, instead she paused, breathed and calmly reminded Pence, in the event he had forgotten, that she was indeed speaking and was owed her time and the right to finish her answer to the question.

Over the course of the nearly two hour debate, Pence interrupted  Harris 10 times. That is 10 separate instances in which the Vice President tried to make Sen. Harris felt small, and in all ten instances she resisted with strength and grace.

There is a clear dichotomy in the expectations that the American people hold for the candidates and their respective parties. After President Trump abandoned politeness at the first Presidential Debate, his supporters revered him for “steamrolling Biden.” He was rewarded for behavior that my mother would not have accepted from me as a  six-year-old. Sen. Harris was intentional about being civil and wasn’t met with the same respect from her base. Instead she was seen as weak or muted or, in the words of our Commander-in-Chief, “a monster that was onstage with Mike Pence.”

Sen. Harris is forced to operate in multiple confines that the Republican ticket is free of. She is expected to bring a sense of unity to this fractured nation, all while making sure that her hair, clothes and makeup adhere to certain standards expected of Black women. As the Black, female candidate, she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Vice President Pence was allowed to interrupt, mansplain and advocate for misogyny.

We expect the Biden-Harris ticket to fix a broken system and reward the President for refraining from racial and sexist slurs in press conferences. This isn’t to shame any person or party: With every tweet, press conference and televised interaction, it’s hard to not let your expectations slip in order to prevent such frequent disappointment. In the same manner, though, it is easy to expect perfection from the people who seem to be the only solution to this mess. However, please remember that the candidates are all running for the same position. Hold them to the same standards, evaluate them the same way and call out their shortcomings with the same energy. Don’t let respectability politics substitute itself for American politics.

 

Catherine St. Hilaire is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at cas529@cornell.edu. Candid Cathy runs every other Monday this semester.