America is seeing only the beginning of the attacks that Kamala Harris will face. Voters will expect her to be supportive of Joe Biden, of course, but they will inevitably find her insufficiently loyal and deferential. They will dismiss her as angry, cold, and schoolmarmish. They will hear her voice as shrill and grating. They will call her inauthentic, a liar, and a phony. Many people will want too much, and too much of the wrong things, from Harris, and will hold her to an unattainable standard because of her gender and race. Given her identity, her talents, and the barriers she is breaking, she will be subject to an ugly morass of biases—an embarrassment of misogyny and racism.
Republicans have already started in on her—with Donald Trump repeatedly calling her “nasty,” his favorite insult for women, and Luray, Virginia, Mayor Barry Presgraves labeling her “Aunt Jemima.” John Eastman, who once ran unsuccessfully against Harris for California attorney general, reinvented the racist “birther” wheel by disputing Harris’s eligibility for vice president on grounds entirely spurious.
Some Democrats have pounced as well. According to a report by Politico, Former Senator Chris Dodd remarked that Harris “had no remorse” about what was described as her “ambush” of Biden onstage during the first Democratic debate—more accurately, Harris holding Biden accountable for waxing lyrical about his shameful history of working with segregationists, particularly on opposing busing. Dodd reportedly seemed most perturbed by Harris’s matter-of-fact take on the exchange: “She laughed and said, ‘That’s politics.’” What a small occasion for pearl-clutching. Yet Harris’s failure to bend and scrape before a white man is a classic basis for the suspicion, mistrust, and consternation often directed at women and people of color who challenge their social superiors within the existing hierarchy.
The biases against Harris are not reducible to the racism that afflicted Barack Obama plus the sexism and misogyny that Hillary Clinton encountered—gender biases that women as much as men often harbor. One of the key lessons of intersectionality theory, developed by the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is that Harris will be susceptible to unique forms of prejudice—from white men and women—directed specifically at Black as well as Asian women.
As an Asian American woman, Harris will have to contend with a noxious, prescriptive stereotype that demands she be docile and attentive. As a Black woman, she will face a particular constellation of bigotry that the scholar Moya Bailey and her collaborators refer to as “misogynoir.” One form it takes is the expectation that Black women of a certain age be mammies. According to this “controlling image,” as the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has called it, Black women must be kind, caring, considerate, nurturing, and cheerful.
Many parts of the electorate are liable to be excessively hard on Black women who do not conform to such norms of maternal care. Harris, who does not have children of her own (though she is said to be close to her stepchildren), will doubtless fall prey to the prejudiced sense that she is somehow less caring than she ought to be. Suspicion will attach to Harris’s formidable intellect and her beautifully eviscerating style of questioning, under which Brett Kavanaugh has withered. People will point to her notorious clash with Biden onstage to justify the feeling that she is not a team player. And, of course, she will be labeled too ambitious.
Given how she will be attacked, I want to be fully supportive. But I must admit that my heart sank when I initially learned of Biden’s pick last week. Not only had I hoped for a more progressive candidate—Elizabeth Warren or Stacey Abrams—but his choice of Harris seemed particularly ill-suited to the current political moment. With so much valuable momentum building toward police reform or even, as I hope, defunding, Biden’s selection of a tough former prosecutor seemed to defy the perception that he has been shifting leftward.
Harris was more progressive than some prosecutors, but much less so than others—and in this country, it’s arguably reasonable to blanch at anyone attracted to a prosecutorial role in our broken criminal-justice system. Harris, like many others, repeatedly failed to pursue allegations of police brutality and wrongful shootings during her tenure. She, like many others, did far too little to support trans people as they suffered in inhumane conditions, denied their fundamental right to gender-confirmation surgery while incarcerated. She also pursued so-called truants, to the potential detriment of these children’s parents, who were disproportionately poor, nonwhite, and vulnerable.
Are white leftists like me right to judge Kamala Harris for these and other reasons? Yes. Are we likely to hold her, as a Black woman, to unduly high and unfair standards? Also yes. We are too punitive toward Black women who are themselves perceived as punitive. And we don’t tend to forgive those who are seen as lacking mercy.
Somehow, we must hold these two compatible but awkwardly coexisting sets of truths simultaneously in our minds over the coming months—and, if Biden and Harris are elected, far beyond them. (That it is crucial that we vote for them to evade the existential threat of another Trump term ought to go without saying.)
Many voters will try to neatly separate criticisms of Harris into prejudiced and legitimate ones by pointing to their content. But it’s unfortunately not that simple, for at least two reasons. One, biases may show up not just in the content or nature of the criticism but in the amount of it—people may take valid criticisms of Harris and blow them out of proportion. Two, biases may show up not just in being too harsh on Harris as a Black woman, but also in being too easy on her white male counterparts.
So there’s no choice for the electorate but to undergo the messy, piecemeal process of trying to hold Harris accountable without being unfair to her—and hence, more importantly, to the groups she represents. Many, including me, must learn to live with a sense of moral ambiguity as well as humility—open to the possibility of our own prejudices, rather than steeped in denial or avoidance.
When scrutinizing Harris’s past, all voters should remember that it’s not primarily in order to sit in judgment over her, but rather to determine how she might govern as vice president—and, perhaps ultimately, as this country’s leader. And Harris seems to have come around to the need for deeper criminal-justice reform. She has taken responsibility for her missteps on trans issues. And she currently has one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate.
Women, as much as men, are entitled to make mistakes and change their minds. I look forward to being proven wrong about Harris’s willingness to fight for systemic change, despite my reservations. In the meantime, I will defend her at every turn from the egregious misogynoir to which she will inevitably be subjected.