I’m sure it is tempting, but can folks please avoid that comfy cliché, “a star is born,” to describe what’s happening now with California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris?
First, as we know, Harris is a mature black woman.
It is not at all unreasonable to say that being a mature black woman in 2017 usually entails a few key personality traits and behavioral responses, all of which I personally view as positive (disclosure: I, too, am a mature black woman), including having:
- A finely tuned nose and ear for b.s.,
- A heightened sense of ethics,
- A low threshold for disrespectful language and conduct, and
- Epic intellectual and physical prowess and stamina when it comes to mastering subjects and handling family issues.
There are more traits, and none of us are exactly the same. But it is fair to say that black women of a certain age tend to exhibit and prize these characteristics—I actually prefer to think of them as “super powers”—for a host of reasons, most of which are derived from our historic position on the low end of America’s social and economic totem pole.
Thus are our super powers by now multifaceted. In terms of how they are deployed, this covers the spectrum from stealthy to blatant, from a carefully worded nice-nasty memo emailed to one’s underperforming staff at the job, to a dagger-sharp side eye shot strategically at the assistant principal who has called you in to discuss why your 8-year-old daughter was so “aggressive” in insisting that Chaddington Whiteson shut up and let her finish talking during class.
The main thing to know is that these aren’t the stereotypical, cartoonish caricatures of Loud-Mouthed, Pushy Black Women™ that are so beloved and feared by some white people (men and women). They are, in fact, exemplary of updated survival skills that we’ve refined, honed and adapted in order to meet the barrage of negative behavior and bad expectations that come our way. Every. Damn. Day.
So, to the second and most important point: We aren’t surprised by how some folks are now responding to Kamala Harris.
We all know us some Kamala Harrises.
Hell, many of us are Kamala Harrises.
And in the interests of public service, let’s speak now to the newcomers and to the East Coast journalists and pundits who are apparently quite shook after witnessing Sen. Harris’ turns at the mic during two recent hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. You’ve seen the video by now, and read the Twitter posts of solidarity from a range of women who say they, too, are fed up with being “shushed” and shut down by men.
True, what Harris accomplished by using rapier, rapid-fire questioning techniques with Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the U.S. attorney general, on Tuesday, and on three Trump-administration intelligence-agency experts earlier this month, was impressive.
The clip showing Sessions’ elfin face screwing into an aggravated mask as Harris zapped query after query at him will be on everyone’s loop for years to come. “I, I am not able to be rushed this fast,” Sessions stammered. “It makes me nervous.” That Republican Sens. John McCain and Richard Burr both rode to Sessions’ side and interrupted Harris during the Tuesday hearing and when she similarly braced three other Trump administration officials during hearings last week, and admonished her, has caused a firestorm of outrage from both sides of the aisle.
But folks are missing the biggest takeaway from those exchanges.
Yes, the moment when Harris’ super powers made ol’ “Look Away, Look Away” Sessions “nervous” was delicious to watch, a tasty moment of existential payback for some of us. And it caused the usual-suspect conservatives to take to the airwaves and social media to decry Harris as “rude” and, in the case of one Trump surrogate, “hysterical.”
Meanwhile, your well-meaning white allies in the political-media-industrial complex, too, betrayed a one-dimensional kind of thinking. I mean, comparing Harris to Sen. Elizabeth Warren is like putting a quilted, floral-print cozy over a postmodern, sleek, stainless steel Helena tea kettle: We appreciate the sentiment, but, really, it’s quite able to hold its own heat, thank you very much.
Yet this limited thinking reveals not only the racism and sexism of a certain group of white men but also exposes the geographic and cultural myopia of the nation’s main media practitioners. It shows that they’ve been too ensconced in the Northeast Corridor-Washington, D.C., national political scene over the past few years to have really noticed and seen Harris over her 20-plus years in the public eye.
Sure, there has been the occasional profile of Harris in national outlets since her time as California’s attorney general, but she has not drawn anywhere near the sustained level of national attention as other women in statewide elected positions, despite the fact that California is the most populous state in the union.
Those of us who have watched Harris evolve from an assistant district attorney, to city and county district attorney of San Francisco, to state attorney general, to her current seat as freshman Democratic senator, know what’s up: There is a secret ingredient to Harris’ particular set of mature black woman super powers: her California-ness.
Specifically, Harris is from Berkeley and came of age during a time (roughly the late 1960s through the ’80s) when all manner of social upheaval was the order of the day. Harris is biracial, raised by her mom, who hailed from India, and who was a doctor specializing in breast-cancer research, while Harris’ father, who is Jamaican American, was an economics professor at Stanford. Both were active in social-justice movements in a pocket of Northern California that is widely known for its progressive liberalism—but less well-known for what it also is: a hotbed of white entitlement and incipient racism (what the kids today might call “microaggressions”).
This means that Harris—who holds an undergraduate degree from the pre-eminent and most unapologetically black university in America, Howard University, and a law degree from University of California’s Hastings College of the Law—developed early an extraordinary degree of cultural dexterity, as well as self-confidence that is a bulwark in the face of sexism and racism that is often subtle, yet no less pernicious, than racism of the Deep South variety.
I watched both Senate intelligence hearings over the past couple of weeks, and am not the least surprised that Harris rolled on Sessions and the other Trump officials in the manner that she did. There was no reason for her not to display the prosecutorial skills and intellectual acuity that have shaped her career. And there was every reason for her to deploy the full weight of her particular black-woman super power in that setting and in those moments.
It isn’t Harris’ fault if Sessions, Burr, McCain or any of the millions of viewers (including media types) were surprised or made “nervous” by her rapid, concise questions, insistent tone or steely gaze. The playbook for what constitutes “acceptable” conduct by congressional representatives wasn’t written with women in mind, let alone a black woman of Jamaican and Southeast Indian descent who earned her professional stripes in Northern California.
For all the talk of “identity politics” during this roiling Trump era, it should be obvious that Harris’ identity is unabashedly black—and that she is assiduously updating a playbook that was first opened and inscribed generations ago by women who had no choice but to develop powers that most white men can’t begin to grasp, but which they sure as hell fear.