About a decade ago, I spent a delightful afternoon interviewing a distinguished senior citizen who was being featured in a new documentary about having survived a horrific trauma in his youth. For an hour, we spoke of his triumph over adversity and hatred, and how he’d refused to take his survival for granted. When we were done, I closed my notebook, satisfied I’d asked all the important questions. But my subject had one for me.
“So how does it work?” the gentleman asked. “Now do you give your notes to the reporter and he writes the story?”
“No,” I said as respectfully as I could without losing my mind. “I am the reporter and do all my reporting and writing myself.”
The gentleman was apologetic, the interview had been fruitful and the story turned out well. None of that erases the fact that because I was a woman, and probably because I am Black, this very nice man had decided I was not competent to do my own job and conjured an imaginary man who would do it for me.
Which brings me to Vice President Kamala Harris.
In the last few weeks, I’ve watched the media and others decide that because President Joe Biden is old, or because they don’t like the job he’s doing, someone else must be brought in as the Democratic presidential nominee. On their lists are a lot of people who are not the vice president, as if Harris doesn’t exist. I am absolutely sure it’s because she is a Black woman. That’s how some people treat us.
“Black women in workplaces are pretty much ignored till we’re useful, usually at the last minute if something is already on fire,” said psychotherapist Janel Cubbage of Pikesville. “If something needs to be resurrected from the dead. And, if it fails, we’re going to get stuck with the blame.”
According to a 2019 Harvard Business Review story, Black women are the least supported in the workplace, while being held to a higher standard than anyone else. I didn’t need an article to tell me that — I have had countless conversations with women of all backgrounds, especially Black ones, about being assumed to be the intern or secretary when they were lawyers or editors or doctors. In 2015, Smithsonian Magazine reported that almost 50 percent of Black and Latina scientists surveyed had been mistaken for secretarial or custodial staff.
A few weeks into my first daily newspaper job, a new colleague asked if I was a clerk, even though the boss had sent an email that a reporter was starting the same day I’d showed up. There were no other new employees, but they saw brown skin and assumed I couldn’t possibly be the reporter. I wanted to scream but couldn’t, because then I’d be an angry Black woman. To quote Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow in “The Wiz,” you can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.
I know the vice president’s polling isn’t great, and she didn’t do well when she initially ran against Biden for the 2020 nomination. But I think part of her current reputation is due to the fact that the media refuses to cover most of what she’s accomplished, so it’s easier to dismiss her.
Even the press she’s gotten about her achievements alludes to the fact that no one is talking about her — Time magazine called her “both a misunderstood and potentially potent force in Democratic politics.” To wit: She attended a state dinner and no major outlets photographed her, leading many to doubt she was there until the mayor of Houston posted a shot with her on Instagram. If they can’t get rid of her, they’ll just ignore her, deny her efforts and say, “See, that’s why she sucks.”
Just like my otherwise nice older interviewee, some people never consider that a woman, especially a woman of color, might be in a position of power or authority — or at least one that requires giving us any credit. It’s why so many people were comfortable with Black women like Stacey Abrams helping Democrats win seats but not actually ever being the governor of Georgia herself.
Let’s be clear. Biden, the incumbent, has said he is running, so until he drops out, which he’s not likely to, he’s the guy. If he runs, wins and then resigns, there’s a clear line of succession determining that Vice President Harris would take over. And, if he decided not to run, she would have to be considered as the nominee, because, you know, she’s the vice president.
And yet some are bending over backward to pretend she is not a real player. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota launched a campaign to replace Biden as the Democratic nominee mostly because of Phillips’ relative youth (he’s 54). Yet, when speaking about Harris, who is a mere five years older than he is, in an interview posted by the Atlantic last week, Phillips seemed to flounder and said some people — not him, of course — don’t think Harris has the skills for the job.
The congressman remarked that he “enjoyed” every interaction he had had with Harris and that she was “thoughtful,” but that “I hear from others who know her a lot better than I do that many think she’s not well positioned. She is not well prepared, doesn’t have the right disposition and the right competencies to execute that office.” Phillips is like a combination of Shaggy insisting it wasn’t him and “In Living Color” neighborhood busybody Bonita Buttrell, who ended her dishing sessions with “I ain’t one to gossip, so you didn’t hear it from me.”
Ironically, the only person who seems to readily acknowledge Harris’ proximity to the presidency is Republican candidate Nikki Haley, who wants you to believe Biden is at death’s door and keeps repeating that a vote for him is a vote for Harris. And we can’t have that. We’re not going to say why. But you know why.
Cubbage said there is a “sense of entitlement to our labor and our bodies, and the expectation that we will always stand up, to be the canary in the coal mine. It’s maddening to see the irony of yelling ‘Protect Black women,’ but they never listen to us until things are dire.”
I’ve also seen that, as with Abrams, Black women’s achievements don’t belong to us, but our defeats sure do. It reminds me of an angry email I got from a previously solicitous Palm Beach Post reader about the length of a dress I’d worn at a live event to interview Miami’s own Pitbull. This stranger wrote that “white liberals like [her]self” could not continue to defend me if I didn’t know how to dress myself. Yes, I swear that’s a quote. This woman not only turned on me because she didn’t approve of my outfit but she took it personally.
As a therapist, Cubbage thinks Harris is caught in a cycle in which she is lauded for her “milestone” of being the first woman and person of color in her office while being expected to “be complacent with the status quo, and that’s how you get burned out.” So what should she and other Black women do to stem the tide, I asked. Keep on keeping on?
Actually, she said, it’s the opposite. “You have to challenge it. We need to say things, to speak up” about our accomplishments and demand they be acknowledged, Cubbage said. “You have to be strategic about the battles you choose to fight and how you speak up, but you have to have hard conversations and not let people off the hook.”
She’s absolutely right. I think the vice president will have to keep having and pushing big moments leading into 2024, as when she told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that she wouldn’t be wasting her time debating him over whether slavery provided on-the-job training or whatever wackiness he was trying to sell. She’s above that, and she confidently let him know.
I wish I could go back and explain to that nice old man that he had insulted me and his assumptions were racist and sexist, rather than eating my discomfort. I’ve earned the right to be where I am, and to let people know.
And that, sir, is how it works.