Last week’s Vice Presidential Debate was a lesson in white privilege confronting Black intelligence. Four hundred years of our nation’s history of oppression, suppression, and white supremacy met its match.
Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants, represents what many consider to be the quintessential American dream if elected as Vice President – “the nation’s first Black vice president, the first female vice president, the first Indian-American and the first Jamaican-American to ascend to the office.” She represents hope for the working class, a dream for hard-working immigrants building a home each year, as well as future aspirations for Black and brown girls everywhere.
Vice President Mike Pence is widely known in political spheres for his social conservatism and his willingness to place his Christian values above even the wider Republican platform. He has staunchly stood by President Trump, rarely made critical statements publicly, repeatedly defended President Trump even throughout his impeachment trial, and has led what has widely been categorized as a failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The differences between the candidates – ideologically, politically, historically – were reflected as soon as they started.
Senator Harris was polished and poised. The skilled politician she is, Senator Harris moderated her tone for the white electorate that often cringes in response to too much anger or emotion from Black candidates. Meanwhile, the Vice President was full of the condescending self-assuredness that plays right into the racial fears President Trump has repeatedly ignited in his base.
Despite the pressure of the moment, Senator Harris’ performance caught fire on social media platforms across the globe.
“I’m speaking,” she stated, not once, not twice, not even three times, but more. She said it always with a smile, as the Vice President repeatedly interrupted her.
Several moments later – “I’m speaking,” as she nodded as if reprimanding a petulant teenager.
Senator Harris spoke – for women, Black people, Asian Americans, immigrants, and hard-working Americans everywhere, standing firm in the face of a white man in a nice suit with the audacity to once again speak over her.
The level of gaslighting Vice President Pence attempted was appalling and should give voters everywhere pause. In response to Senator Harris’ remarks on systemic racism and police reform, the Vice President responded, “This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist, that, as Joe Biden said, law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, that is great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
This response is equal parts arrogance and negligence—arrogance, that as a white man in a society pillared to support white norms, he assumes he knows everything to the point where he can deny systemic racism; and negligence, given he is supposed to serve the needs and concerns of all Americans and not just his white voters. He is supposed to be the Vice President for all, not just Vice President for his supporters. However, in his mind, he sees no problem sharing a national stage with a Black woman and denying systemic racism, denying her work in the criminal justice system, and denying her truth. This is beyond the pale.
The Vice President’s inability to acknowledge a system that benefits him each day, and inability to comprehend that people who do not look like him may experience the world differently, displays a classic definition of privilege. Women, Black people, and people of color everywhere have to face this privilege daily—in their workplace, at the grocery store, in restaurants, in schools, and yes, even in their interactions with law enforcement. Vice President Pence, a powerful white man, is oblivious to systemic racism; therefore, in his mind, it does not exist.
His own actions speak to his incompetence and drive home the fact that his ticket, Trump/Pence, is unfit to lead.
We must call this what it is. Teach our children as well as our students to recognize these behaviors and privileges, and work to actively interrupt them wherever possible, even with a simple “I’m speaking”.
It is a privilege to deny the existence of systemic racism when you yourself cannot ever experience it.
It is a privilege to tell a Black woman her experience is invalid, when you yourself will never walk in her shoes.
It is a privilege to be praised for your religious conservatism when other conservative religions are held in contempt by your party.
It is a privilege to speak with authority and speak over others, forcing them to interrupt you for interrupting them.
It is a privilege to lead a task force when you question the very science it is dependent upon.
It is a privilege to have to educate yourself on your privilege, when Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have lived the experiences they are desperate for you to understand.
It is shameful to sit on a stage in front of millions of Americans and deny their truth, their lives, their experiences, simply because it is not something you have lived. It makes one unquestionably unqualified to govern.
We must hold these actions accountable when we cast our ballots in a few weeks. We must set an example we as educators, as parents, and as citizens, can point to with pride. We must tell the whole truth, about the racism we see, about the sexism we experience, about the systems we prop up when we know they cause immense harm.
We must vote for the futures of our students and, more importantly, we must teach them about the significance of these moments. We owe them the full truth, not simply the narrative that is most palatable. We cannot correct our course if we are not honest about systemic racism, our political leaders, our failings, and our mistakes.
We must speak, at the polls and in the classroom, with transparency and with light. We must interrupt the hatred that is quickly becoming the political norm. We must interrupt systemic racism, white supremacy, and oppression, each and every time. We must.
If our courage is out of grasp, if we are stifled by fear, we need only look to Kamala Harris as an example of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. She has provided us with a powerful tool for interruption and correction – “I’m speaking.”