Opinion by Roxanne Jones
A few weeks ago, a meeting was not going well. My business partner had just shut down a room of wealthy, powerful White men. No easy feat.
“That is not what I do,” she said to a client. “You need to go sit down with that question.” In other words, do not ask me silly questions.
Right away, I knew her comments would be misunderstood as flippant, unprepared and a little too “Black” for the room, even though the client asked a question that was more fitting for an administrative assistant than a CEO.
But my partner is a Black woman, and many of us are no longer willing to bend over backward to code-switch and appease White audiences out of fear of being labeled bossy, defensive or uppity.
More and more, I’ve noticed Black and brown women from all walks of life — including Vice President Kamala Harris — are now embracing this level of authenticity in their lives.
Last month, the vice president was criticized by Republicans, along with members of her own party, for comments she made on her first foreign trip to Guatemala. But I understood that Harris was trying to balance being authentic and honest with being politically correct, all while under the pressure to please everyone on all sides of a complex immigration issue.
She came under fire for unequivocally telling potential migrants: “do not come.” She went on to explain the perils of the trek to America: “So let’s discourage our friends, our neighbors, our family members from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey.”
While the original message was blunt, it should have been clear that she meant to tell would-be immigrants not to risk their lives crossing the border until a better, more humane immigration system was put in place in the US.
In April, US Customs and Border Protection encountered 178,622 migrants at the southern border — the highest number in 20 years. And more unaccompanied children come from Guatemala than any other nation, according to a recent CBP report.
I’m no world leader but for years I’ve often given my friends and people I’ve met that very same advice during my travels throughout Central America when they tell me they plan to escape to America for a better life. As a Black American, I know they have a false understanding of that elusive “American dream.”
This is not to say that there isn’t room to criticize Harris’ comments. Could she have been more careful with her words? Yes. Could she have crafted an answer that would have sounded more hopeful and less harsh to those Democrats on the left like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who immediately criticized Harris? Certainly.
Harris also took the heat for her comments during an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, who asked whether she had plans to visit the border. When Harris responded by saying, “We are going to the border. We’ve been to the border,” Holt pressed her, saying she had not personally gone as vice president. Harris then shot back, “I haven’t been to Europe either.”
She chuckled and went on to say, “I don’t understand the point of your question. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
In other words: “Go sit down with that question,” as my business partner would say.
That’s what I heard in the Holt interview. Harris, pushing back against a question and the suggestion by her critics that she be held accountable for a task she did not deem to be the best use of her power and position.
Again, could her delivery have been better? Yes. It reminded me of the Kamala Harris we saw on the 2020 presidential campaign trail — a bit indignant, defensive and flustered when faced with what she deemed to be a silly question, while trying to mask it all with a chuckle and smile. During those times it always seemed to me that Harris was fighting between speaking with authenticity or sticking to a planned political script.
Laughter is a tactic many powerful women — not just Black women but all of us — have been conditioned to use to disarm the men who confront us.
We are trapped in the sexist stereotype that says women have to be “soft and friendly” to get what we want. And I don’t think that is a comfortable place to be for Harris. Or, many of us for that matter.
Watching Harris do this with Holt was jarring but honestly, I’ve reacted the exact same way in similar situations: rebuffed an offensive question or comment with laughter and given a snarky answer to disguise my discontent.
You don’t have to be the vice president to relate to Harris’ situation. During my early years in corporate America, I smiled my way through more meetings and conversations than I can remember, while seething inside, struggling to get my point across and win respect for my work.
We’ve all been there. But I like what I see from Vice President Harris so far. I’m hoping she stays the course, steps fully into her powerful, intelligent, straight-talking self. But please ditch the chuckle.
It’s time for Black women to bring their entire selves to the table. And even when we stumble, we got this.
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