The Significance of ‘I’m Speaking’

Now that we have your attention.

We can talk about the fly, the facts (or lack thereof), the facial expressions, or the ineffectualness of yet another debate moderator, but what should never be forgotten in the midst of the many eyebrow-raising moments in Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debates is that no matter what you think of Kamala Harris, she made history on that stage as the first woman of color to come so close to holding such a high seat of power.

It was a point the current vice president, Mike Pence, made a point of acknowledging, offering up this milestone as a conciliatory gesture; his own sense of entitlement too entrenched to mask the tinge of condescension in his delivery. Even if the compliment seemed genuine to some, Pence’s behavior clearly communicated otherwise, as he repeatedly lied pontificated over any and all half-hearted attempts USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page made to moderate. He did not hesitate to interrupt and interject into several of Harris’ responses, as well, making it clear he considered her less an opponent than an inconvenience, as David Frum noted in the Atlantic:

At the core of the Trump political project is the reassertion of dominance over the historically dominated by the historically dominant. That reassertion of dominance was Pence’s supreme project at this debate too. Pence did not imitate his boss’s manic and undisciplined—and ultimately catastrophically unsuccessful—style of dominance. Instead, he brought to this debate the more measured and controlled disdain of a man who had considered the matter carefully—and decided that the woman in front of him had no right to control him and that the woman to his right did not deserve to be onstage with him.

As several noted—and Harris herself repeatedly reminded Pence—it was he who was likely out of his depth in comparison to both her incisive intelligence and breadth of experience as the former attorney general-turned-state senator of California. Nevertheless, with the arrogance and cognitive dissonance only a man who has spent the last four years of his life bending to the will of Donald Trump can muster, still, he persisted. Frankly, his bulldozing, however sociopathically calm, wasn’t surprising. Pence has always been the controlled and docile Dr. Jekyll to Trump’s bombastic Mr. Hyde, two faces of the same dangerous and pathological white male superiority complex.

White male dominance is so foundational in American culture and discourse that Page was nearly prone within its grasp, literally thanking the vice president of electoral voters for disrespecting her role as moderator, and consistently allowing him to well exceed his allotted time. No such grace would be afforded to Harris, who repeatedly attempted to reclaim her stolen time with far more resistance from Page, who suddenly found her fortitude when regulating the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

Were our democracy not hanging in the balance, it would’ve been an almost hysterically teachable moment, since the dynamic of the three individuals on that stage was a microcosm of American politics (and by extension, society) itself: the white man emboldened by his presumption of place; the woman of color dutifully if begrudgingly playing by the prescribed rules to fight the good fight against tyranny, and the 53 percent of white women too cowed by their proximity to white male power to do the right and rational thing in respect for the greater good.

These were the more obvious, all-too-familiar dynamics at play on the stage last night—but they made Harris’ simple and yet stunning declaration, “I’m speaking,” all the more significant. Women everywhere—and likely of every political persuasion—no doubt saw themselves in the much-remarked-upon moment when Harris dared to assert that she too was entitled to her time, space, and assertions about our democracy.

“Mr. Vice President. I am speaking.”

Women across social media immediately recognized Pence’s behavior as a facet of patriarchy and misogyny every woman has experienced, from the boardroom to our bedrooms. But make no mistake: Harris’ declaration most deeply resonated with those who are living very specific experience of being Black women in America.

The ones expected to save a precious democracy that has never prioritized us (notably, doing that and other work for an average $.62 on the dollar paid to white men in the same positions). Those, upon whom the weight of being the “cleanup woman” for America’s messes is always thrust, no matter how high they climb—and especially while attempting to ascend to the second-highest seat in the land. Those, who remain the pragmatists despite blatant prejudices—not because they’re weak, but because they’ve historically found success in subverting the system from within. (Case in point: it was Black women who lobbied Biden to choose Harris as his running mate, in spite of many concurrently holding misgivings about her prosecutorial record.)

Given both the amount of shit and the outsized expectations placed upon Harris as she aspires to the vice presidency, her own assertion of her right to speak pales in comparison. And yet, while many will report on the moment, fewer will recognize or appreciate the tightrope she walked on Wednesday night. Teetering precariously between white disdain, male dismissal, and Black distrust, Harris was tasked with neither being too angry, nor too reactive, nor too…much. Arguably, this also includes being burdened with the restraint of not being too brilliant or dynamic, so as not to upstage the man she was there to represent and support (whom she had also previously trounced on the debate stage).

As noted by several Black women online, this is a dance exclusive to the Black female experience. Kerry Washington rightly noted (in response to a presumable criticism of Harris’ performance by CNN’s Dana Bash, no less) “the mental & emotional gymnastic required of Black women in these situations,” tweeting, “[There’s] not a chance in the world [Kamala Harris] wasn’t thinking about this. We don’t ever NOT think about it. Her superpower?! Making it look easy.”

To further understand both the nuances at play and Harris’ masterful restraint, one need look no further than Page’s complicity in upholding a white man’s right to speak over both her and the woman of color on stage, contrasted with her effective punishment of Harris for Pence’s rudeness. Page’s passivity echoed the largest failure of white feminism, which, for all its altruism, has unfailingly centered whiteness, first and foremost. (In case you’re wondering, Page says she “felt good about how it went,” reports The Hill.) That Harris should have to reclaim her time from the person tasked with keeping it echoed the ways in which Black feminists have been forced to reimagine and reclaim a liberation movement we helped build.

And so, we must center ourselves. Long after it leaves the news cycle, “I’m speaking” should be more than a meme-able moment. For Black women, it is a rallying cry. Our much-depended-upon participation in this ongoing American project cannot be predicated upon our silence. We are speaking, we are holding our space, and we are entitled to hold you accountable.

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Nathan Odige