The morning after Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to take a debate stage as a member of a major party’s ticket, President Donald Trump disparaged her as “totally unlikable” and a “communist.” Then, twice, he called her “this monster.”
His dehumanising language, extraordinary even by Trump’s own standards, was an unusually explicit example of the biased attitudes – about how women should behave, how people of color should behave, and especially how women of color should behave – that have pervaded commentary regarding Harris.
There was the “condescending” label, too, that undecided voters applied to Harris’ facial expressions as they assessed the debate in a focus group run by a Republican pollster, Frank Luntz. There was the member of the Trump campaign’s advisory board who called her an “insufferable lying bitch.”
And there was Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s depiction of her as a power-hungry usurper of Joe Biden’s would-be presidency, which played to an old racist and sexist trope even as Carlson insisted his remark had nothing to do with her identity.
These sorts of personal attacks on Harris have been coming since the day Biden chose her as his running mate, when conservative commentators repeatedly mispronounced her name and suggested she wasn’t Black, and a top Google search around that time was whether she was born in the United States.
She was, in California. But the interest in that question – which evoked the birtherism lie that Trump weaponized against former President Barack Obama – spoke to how differently she was being treated than the white vice-presidential nominees who came before her.
Her selection as Biden’s running mate thrilled many Americans who saw themselves represented in a major presidential campaign for the first time. It also unleashed a steady drip of racism and sexism, underscoring not only the double standards women and people of color face, but what happens when multiple identities meet: a Black woman, an Indian American woman, a woman whose parents were immigrants.
Tropes and caricatures
One of the oldest racist tropes is that of the “angry Black woman.”
It was popularized in the minstrel-like sitcom “Amos ’n’ Andy,” which included a character named Sapphire who became synonymous with the stereotype of an “emasculating” Black woman, said Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University.
“Angry,” “mean,” “aggressive,” “disrespectful”: All of these words, which Trump has used to describe Harris, play to this stereotype, which was also used against Michelle Obama. False suggestions that Harris is scheming to run the country in Biden’s stead play to it, too.
“She’ll bulldoze her elderly, sentimental boss,” Carlson, the Fox News host, said Wednesday. “So tonight we’ll be airing the vice-presidential debate, but what we’ll actually be looking at is Kamala Harris’ audition for the presidency. That’s the office she’s running for, no matter what they tell you.”
The attacks on Harris as “unlikable,” which Trump pushed Thursday, also play into a double standard. Voters are more likely to see likability as mandatory for women than for men, research shows, and experts say Black women are often judged even more harshly.
It is something of a tightrope: Stereotypically feminine behavior can lead voters to see women running for office as more likable but less of a leader, while stereotypically masculine behavior can make voters see them as more of a leader but less likable.
This is “the classic double bind,” said Amanda Clayton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. “Women can either be seen as leaders or they can be seen as feminine, and the two don’t go together.”
These caricatures and double standards have been accompanied by sexualization, common against women of all races but especially those who are Black. This is another racist trope, the promiscuous, hypersexual “Jezebel.”
After Biden chose Harris, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested falsely, quoting from a conservative website, that she had “slept her way up.” T-shirts with the slogan “Joe and the Hoe” were briefly available on Amazon. The mayor of Luray, Virginia, called her “Aunt Jemima,” a nod to yet another stereotype, the “Mammy.”
“These are distinctly misogynoir tactics,” Brown said, referring to the combination of racism and sexism that Black women face. “We would not see these stereotypes or these kind of threats used against her if she were not a Black woman.”
Lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” three decades ago to describe how various identities can overlap to produce discrimination more complex than just, for instance, racism plus sexism. Experts said Harris’ experience was a prime example.
Several activists and political scientists said they believed such attacks would backfire given voters’ increased awareness of double standards. But Crenshaw, who teaches at Columbia Law School and UCLA, said it was not necessarily that simple, because part of what makes intersectional bias so powerful is that prejudice against one identity can persist in communities of another identity.
She said she worried that “women may not vote against the rampant sexism because of race, and people of color may not vote against the racist and xenophobic dimensions of the Trump assault because of anti-Black racism within Indian communities and misogyny within Black communities.”
Within hours of Harris’ selection, conservative talk-radio host Mark Levin went on a diatribe about descriptions of her as “the first African American woman” on a major presidential ticket.
“Kamala Harris is not an African American,” he said. “She is Indian and Jamaican. Jamaica’s part of the Caribbean. India is out there near China. I only point that out because if you dare raise that, you’re attacked, but the truth is she’s not, and so I just wanted to make that clear.”
There is nuanced debate within Black communities about what it means to be African American versus Black. But it is common, including among Black people, to use the two interchangeably.
Comments like Levin’s are sometimes referred to as identity policing. Among other things, it suggests that Harris is not who she says she is or that she cannot have multiple identities, as millions of Americans do.
“She’s going to be tasked with managing those perceptions of her identity,” Danielle Casarez Lemi, a fellow at Southern Methodist University’s John G. Tower Center for Political Studies who focuses on race and representation, said after Harris was nominated. “And that’s time that could be spent on the ground, building relationships with people and formulating policies.”