What always baffles me is how easily many forget that the space in which we occupy is one of strategy. This fact could not be more evident in the recent vice-presidential debate.
Both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence worked to differentiate themselves from their presidential counterparts while emphasizing the same ideas. For this reason, the debate proved predictably redundant and evasive. The two offered no new information, but new information was not the intention of the evening. The intention of the evening was to implement the optics of personality as a point of differientiation.
Pence, the current Vice-President, worked hard to depict himself as a “conservative” gentleman. This is not hard to do when juxtaposed to the crass Donald Trump. His debate performance worked to depict the presidential demeanor absent from the Trump administration which betrayed a significant point to the black community: Approach does not extinguish anti-blackness. Similarly, Pence’s predictable attack on Harris’s record as Attorney General depicts an anti-black methodology where racists posit black people as racist. Harris’s time as Attorney General is no different than any white man or woman who have occupied similar positions. Pence’s attack delineates the hypocritical ideology that continues to foment anti-black ideology. An ideology that critiques the very actions that created America when attempted or implemented by non-whites. Thus, what viewers witnessed is a phenomenon that is seldom acknowledged, white men “playing the race card” to assert and preserve their own racial dominance.
I want to be clear and articulate that race only becomes a card when applied in a hegemonic space to actualize a social or systemic privilege. Being born black does not afford one a card; rather, it deals one a hand that everyone can see from a systemically informed perspective.
I say this to say that Pence, is not he only person to conveniently employ the elephant in the room to his benefit. The elephant in the room is Harris’s status as a (physically) non-white woman with an ancestral proximity to blackness. Pence addresses this elephant by congratulating Harris on the “historic nature” of her candidacy, to make himself appear gracious and not predatory. All who have encountered white men like this in life know this empty gesture far too well. Nevertheless, underscoring her blackness motivated Kamala Harris’s debate performance. To prove said blackness, Harris leaned on the very optics that garnered her traction as a VP candidate.
In addition to the fly that perched itself on Pence’s white hair, Harris dominated the media in the hours following the debate. The articles and tweets identified with Harris’s facial expressions to which many aligned with themselves and the black female elders in their families. It is worth mentioning, that in discussing Harris’s facial expressions there is no talk of her being South Asian, Indian, or a “woman of color.” This is because she wore these expressions just as the wore the mask of distressed protestor, to perform the black aesthetic necessary to appease the targeted black audience excluded from the previous presidential debate.
Harris’s facial expressions were not a natural disposition but strategically implemented to mirror the expressions of her constituency and play blackness as a card that would draw criticism. This criticism would provide a foundation to delineating the opposing party’s racism. Just as Harris famously called out Joe Biden during her brief bid for presidency for his role in implementing a systemically racist practice, the criticism and compliments that her facial expressions engendered promise the very same affect by offending and appeasing the same collectives.
The only problem with this practice is one of convenience. The very expressions that Harris made on the stage would have, and does, eliminate black women from similar spaces. The very expressions and “personality” Harris performed on Wednesday night continue to function as “ghetto” but in her case it proved the gateway to employing the optics that make a blind constituency feel seen in the white man’s world.
It is not about Harris owning her space under the white spotlight when faced with the adversity of a white man who feels reduced in having to share a stage with an individual who actualizes the subordinate faction to whom his entire life is based. It is not about Harris positing an alignment with those whom if she was more like, she would not have been selected for the job. It is about the black collective remaining a prop, a card dealt at birth, but conveniently played by those who play our collective to attain their own pseudo victory in a white world.
So when black women say that Harris won the debate, what I hear that she “won” them over by appearing to identify or expose a black female truth, a truth that only matters for Harris when blackness connotes the most fitting color, or outfit,\ for the occasion.