The Big VP Debate Takeaway: Black Women, Take Back Your Power

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, shares her thoughts about the highly anticipated showdown between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.

During last night’s vice-presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, we all witnessed a ninety-minute full-on display of white fragility, white male privilege and Black girl magic.

All throughout the evening we witnessed Pence’s blatant disregard for the agreed upon rules of the debate. Like his running mate, Donald Trump, he consistently went over his allotted time, dismissed the appeals of the moderator, and felt emboldened to both interrupt and ask direct questions to his opponent.

In contrast, Sen. Harris came across as a poised, prepared and focused candidate, undeterred by Pence’s disruptive behavior. She took her power back by constantly reminding Pence that she was talking and fully intended to use her allotted time to complete her answer — a key move I hope to see more girls and women take as we continue to lead in boardrooms, classrooms, and offices across the country. 

Last night’s debate was not particularly earth shattering nor did we learn anything substantially new about either presidential candidate’s platform, however the country received several real time lessons on how Black women are uniquely qualified to navigate and confront racism and sexism in America today. I boiled them down to six core takeaways.

Black Woman Lesson #1: Reclaim Your Time

Similar to Congresswoman Maxine Waters popularizing phrase “reclaim my time” in her response to Steve Mnuchin’s attempt to disrupt her on the House floor, we saw Harris implore that same strategy and assertively and unapologetically reclaim her time. Pence interrupted Harris more than 10 times as she answered the moderator’s questions. She could barely give a complete sentence without his constant disruption. While it may have been part of Pence’s debate strategy to rattle her and throw her off her game, it failed miserably. Harris did not come to play. She was extremely calm, calculated and determined to not be distracted by Pence’s tactics. Without any assistance from the moderator, she consistently asserted herself and reminded her opponent that she fully intended to complete her thought and articulate the message that she came to bring to the debate. In other works, she took back her power by speaking up, calling out the injustice happening to her, and then proceeded to make her point.  

 Black Woman Lesson #2: Stand In Your Truth

When asked about the murder of Breonna Taylor and “if justice was served” by the grand jury, we saw two distinctively different responses from both candidates. Pence stated that he “trusts our justice system.” In his comments about George Floyd, he doubled down on the fact that the Trump/Pence administration fully supports law enforcement and “there’s no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed” his murder, a commonplace tactic used by his administration to mischaracterize the ongoing movement against police violence. Harris stood in her truth and her power as a Black woman. She acknowledged Taylor’s family as well as the pain and anger experienced by our community. Without hesitation she emphatically stated that “justice had not been served” in Taylor’s case. Furthermore, she connected Taylor and Floyd’s murders to the larger more systemic issue with law enforcement in America. She openly acknowledged that in her role as a former prosecutor she was distinctively aware of the racism within the criminal justice system and acknowledged the dire need for criminal justice reform, even stating that the Biden/Harris ticket would make criminal justice reform a priority issue in their administration. 

Black Woman Lesson #3: Talk Facts, Not Fiction

I think the most effective strategy implored by Senator Harris last night was to stick with the facts. She was able to effectively lay out the Trump administration’s poor handling of several issues  by citing in real-time key facts to support her claim and drive home each point she was making, such as the loss of 212,000 American lives to coronavirus since March, the loss of more than 300,000+ manufacturing jobs in the “trade war” with China,  and the scale of impact that Trump’s attempt to end healthcare will mean for millions of Americans. Knowing the facts are essential to any debate and for any candidate running for office. The real world revolves around the hard facts, and Harris applied her knowledge of these facts well during the debate, speaking directly to the American people. 

Black Woman Lesson #4: Save Yourself (Because White Women Won’t) Washington Post journalist and debate moderator, Susan Page, showed us that white women oftentimes will kowtow and give unmerited deference to while male privilege. She repeatedly refused to hold Pence to the same standard that she held Harris. She allowed Pence to take more talking time throughout the debate, gave him more room to repeatedly interrupt Harris’s responses and never truly held him accountable to the rules of the debate. In fact, during the debate, she apologetically stated to both Pence and Harris that she had not created the rules of the debate but that she was only there to enforce them. Yet, ironically, it appeared that her “enforcement” was one sided and not directed at Pence  with the same level of intensity or quickness in which she would correct Harris.

In a further act of disrespect, Page felt comfortable enough to refer to Sen. Harris by her first name on at least one occasion, while continuously including Pence’s full title before addressing him. While she did correct the informality used with Harris, the bottom line is that there was a clear imbalance of control and admonishment granted to the two candidates, oftentimes leaving Harris to defend herself, assert her intention to finish her statement and challenge Pence’s misrepresentation of her answers and/or work.    

Black Woman Lesson #5: Use The Proverbial ‘K’

Every Black woman in America has probably at some point in her professional life had to confront and diffuse white mansplaining. Oftentimes we find ourselves constantly experiencing and having to deal with our white male counterparts that will exhibit patronizing and paternalistic behavior in the workplace to cover for insecurities in areas usually where they have deficiencies around the subject matter where we have expertise. In these instances, we are usually confronted with mischaracterizations and told how to do our jobs by the other party that has no real interest in learning, listening or resolving the matter but only seeks to assert their opinions and white male privilege. This is when it’s best to use the four-part proverbial “k” strategy, which allows you to take back control in a conversation.

First, you take control of the conversation by acknowledging you heard what was offered, then you assert your intention to finish your statement while putting the other party on notice as you plan to go forward at all costs, and you seal it all with a smile and head nod while putting emphasis only on the last letter of the abbreviated version of the word ‘okay’ so your opponent understands that a line has been drawn in the sand. Harris used this strategy masterfully throughout the night. 

Black Woman Lesson #6: Be Fearless (Don’t Come for Me, Unless I Send For You)

Non-verbal communication says just as much, if not more, than the use of verbal communication. During the debate, we witnessed Harris bringing all of her gifts to bear on the platform. She demonstrated the traits of a focused leader, excellent in her presentation and oratory skills, acutely prepared and armed with factual data, and most importantly, determined not to be bullied or distracted by her opponent. However, she also demonstrated that she is fully willing to use a simple Black woman tool that we all have in our professional bag as we navigate sexist and racist environments.

Black women have the unique ability to communicate and translate an entire thought and convey a full argument with a slight turn of the head, subtle raise of our brow, or a determined look in our eyes. Last night, Senator Harris used her non-verbal skills to communicate one message to her opponent, loud and clear, “I am not the one.” 

Black women, continue to rise up, speak out and take back your power. America needs you.  

LaTosha Brown is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter and the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium. Follow her at @MsLaToshaBrown on Twitter. 

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