The Triple Whammies and Double Binds Faced by Kamala Harris

As soon as Kamala Harris was named as Joe Biden’s running mate, “a steady drip of racism and sexism” was unleashed, writes Maggie Astor of the New York Times.

Many of the racist and sexist tropes thrown at her are similar to those aimed at Michelle Obama when she stepped onto the public stage as Barack’s spouse, such as calling her an “angry Black woman” when she spoke of her convictions or showed herself to be a strong woman. At the same time, the intersection of Harris’s particular combination of identities creates some different challenges for Harris. Astor explains that intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights activist, three decades ago to describe “how various identities can overlap to produce discrimination more complex than just, for instance, racism plus sexism.” Harris has the “triple whammy” of at least three primary identities—race, gender, and being the child of immigrants.

The Triple Whammy

Astor notes that Kamala Harris is a Black woman, an Indian American woman, and a woman whose parents were immigrants. Astor quotes Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, as saying, “These are distinctly misogynoir tactics” when describing the combination of racism and sexism that Harris faces as a Black woman. Here are some examples of misogynoir stereotypes and labels that Harris has experienced so far:

  • The president twice used dehumanizing language to refer to Harris when he called her “this monster” on the day following the vice presidential debates.
  • Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, referred to Harris as “an insufferable lying bitch.”
  • Tucker Carlson of Fox News labelled Harris as, in Astor’s words, “a power-hungry usurper” of Biden’s presidency.
  • Birtherism accusations have been made about whether she was born in the United States (she was).
  • She has, of course, been called an “angry Black woman” along with “mean,” “aggressive,” and “disrespectful.”
  • Sexualization is another racist trope leveled at Harris, which includes being promiscuous and hypersexual. Astor notes that Rush Limbaugh suggested, falsely, that Harris was elected as the district attorney for the State of California by “sleeping her way up.”
  • Harris has also been called “Aunt Jemima” by a public official and “phony.” Astor explains that when “phony” is used against a woman of color, it takes on a culturally loaded meaning—she doesn’t belong. This meaning is amplified when the woman of color has immigrant parents.
  • Harris has also faced challenges from the Indian American community because of anti-Black racism, from the Black community because of misogyny, and from the Black community because of her Indian American ancestry, which caused some to question whether she was really “Black enough” to understand their lived experience.

Double Binds

Much has been written about the double binds that women face, and women of color are often judged even more harshly than white women when facing double binds. Astor notes some examples of double binds that Harris faced after the vice presidential debate:

  • Trump described Harris as “totally unlikable.” This is a classic double bind for women, described by Amanda Clayton, a political scientist at Vanderbuilt University, as “women can either be seen as leaders or they can be seen as feminine, and the two don’t go together.”
  • “She is applauded for her knowledge,” Luntz wrote on Twitter. “But they just don’t like her ‘condescending reactions.’”
  • “Pence absolutely wrecking Harris on Biden’s economic plan here,” Ben Shapiro, The Daily Wire founder, wrote on Twitter. “Her smirking isn’t helping.”
  • The focus from commentators was on Harris’s tone and looks, and they overlooked the policies she was discussing and her professional experience.

We must all be vigilant and call out these triple whammies and double binds as unfair when we see them leveled against Kamala Harris. This includes staying conscious about our own biases and challenging ourselves when racist or sexist thoughts or judgments arise in us. They are unfair.


Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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