Starting at 6 pm PT last night, my phone started firing notifications like a fireworks finale. We were tuned into the Vice Presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, yet understandably distracted with a toddler’s mealtime. My WhatsApp thread with my close girlfriends blew up and I had at least 20 texts from other friends watching and commenting in real-time.
Many women noted that the Presidential debate the week prior was a bit triggering, with low blows, interruptions, shouting, and immaturity that we didn’t want to see take place in our democracy. If my friend group was any indication of the nation’s pulse for this debate, we were a bit on edge. A little bit of PTSD from the prior week made us wary, but we wanted to see a former attorney general make her case for the Democratic ticket and see how the current administration would defend its record for the past four years.
The texts all noted one thing: they were encouraged, even emboldened, that Harris was stopping interruptions and mansplaining as it happened.
What we saw in last night’s debate was mostly a civilized – even, at times, refreshing – discourse, with one exception:
The subtle constant power struggle for a woman to be clearly heard without coming off as pushy, bitchy, or condescending.
Pence’s interruptions and disregard for time limits or moderator questions made it very clear that he felt the rules didn’t apply to him. Surprising? No. Even after he interrupted and she told him she’s “still speaking,” Pence justified it by continuing to talk with the points he wanted to share.
I’ve seen this behavior in most board rooms, casual work conversations, and chats with friends and family. Ask any woman and they’ll tell you the same. Don’t believe me? I’ll show you the multitudes of women who shared the same sentiment on my social media feeds.
We even can note the difference in response between Joe Biden and Harris on the debate stage a week apart:
Biden’s response: “Will you shut up, man?!”
Harris’s response: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
While Harris’s facial expressions on the split-screen may catch ire from some, her reactions resonated with thousands of women who have been in that same position. Expected to smile and say “thank you” when they receive a compliment, even if it wasn’t sincere or genuine. Having a poker face when the same words they said were heard when a man in the room repeated them. Hiding the understandable rage that bubbles up when equal contributions and success are considered less than her own. Raised eyebrows and a warm gaze (without seeming annoyed) while others try to say “Thank you Vice President” as a way to enforce the debate rules.
Harris was bringing the strength and energy of millions of women who have repeatedly said “I’m still speaking.”
We were seen and recognized in those moments of looks that were so polished, but we could see her internal dialogue screaming how unjust and unfair it was that she wasn’t given the same amount of time.
Harris gave a masterclass in how to walk that narrow tightrope. No doubt she’s been doing it most of her life, as a daughter of immigrants and a Black woman. She had to combat multiple stereotypes so that she could come across approachable and personable, from the angry black woman trope to the underlying sentiment that a woman’s ambition threatens a man’s power in any situation. Within that, her statements were sincere, clear, succinct, and to the point. Some of her looks very much appeared like one’s I’d give my own son if he was doing something untruthful or out of line.
To me, her reactions and responses were completely justified with the intensely layered system she was operating within. It became clear that she could effectively use her voice to move our country forward for all of its people.
Now, did she answer every question fully? No. Did Pence? Definitely not. At the end of it all, it’s up to the voters to decide which comprehensive presidential ticket they want to support. Harris will come under more scrutiny and attacks because she is a Black woman with ambition. And yet, even though I will never know what it’s like to be an ambitious Black or brown woman in this world, I did feel seen as a woman who navigates a system that wasn’t built for me.
And let’s take it one layer further: I’ve seen white women use the same strategies as Pence in conversations with Black women. We are masters of passive-aggressive comments and discussion, coated in a facade of nice smiles. Those comments have cost Black women jobs or advancement, only to keep white women in a position of power. I’ve used this tactic and only realized when it was too late.
Margo Lockhart, co-host of the SciFi Generation podcast and an amazing woman to follow on Twitter summed this up quite nicely – I’ll let her words tell the story:
Harris’s debate performance was a reminder to me that my voice and my silence has power, even if the others in the room don’t recognize it. My ideas can make a difference, no matter how many times they get shot down. My words matter, no matter how many times I’m interrupted.
More importantly, it underlined the continued importance of giving space for Black women to speak as fully as they want to without judgment and with ears wide open. Without interruption. And it scored how vital it is to let their words be theirs, amplifying (but never taking credit) wherever and whenever I can.
“I’m still speaking” is a full sentence that carries a new gravitas and power – one that we can fully employ as we navigate the system and build a new one that lifts voices that are not heard. Because, as Harris said, “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation.”