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The double standards Kamala Harris may face at the debate, briefly explained

How Harris approaches the debate reflects the sexism and racism she has had to deal with her entire career.

Kamala Harris wears a face mask and waves to an unseen audience as she walks onto a stage
Sen. Kamala Harris waves as she arrives at a voter mobilization drive-in event on October 2, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Kamala Harris probably won’t be using the same kinds of insults we heard at September 29’s presidential debate.

As part of Harris’s prep for tonight’s highly anticipated face-off with Vice President Mike Pence, her team has examined how women — particularly Black women — are perceived differently by viewers when they go negative, BuzzFeed News’s Molly Hensley-Clancy and Ruby Cramer reported Tuesday. One of the tropes it has studied is that of the ”angry Black woman,” something media outlets and President Donald Trump may attempt to project onto the vice presidential candidate (Trump previously called Harris “nasty” when referencing her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings).

These are some of the double standards Harris has had to deal with throughout her political career, including since she was named Joe Biden’s running mate. As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas wrote in August, Harris has battled outright racism and sexism in media coverage and even in how she’s described by operatives in her own party: Prior to getting the VP nod, she was deemed too ambitious by some Democrats, a trait that’s often framed negatively, especially when it comes to Black women.

Harris’s ability to navigate some of these dynamics will, unfortunately, be a factor on Wednesday, though experts have noted they expect her to maintain a pointed and strong approach in pressing Pence. Given her experience as a prosecutor and her well-established record questioning Trump appointees in Senate hearings, deploying those skills strategically should play in her favor.

“She’ll literally be bringing her skill set as a prosecutor to the debate stage,” Purdue University political science professor Nadia Brown told Vox.

A TV journalist records a segment while standing in front of Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah, the site of the vice presidential debate.
A TV journalist works on October 6 in front of the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall, the site of the only vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Wednesday’s matchup is the only time Harris and Pence will debate ahead of the election, and it comes shortly after Trump was hospitalized and released from Walter Reed medical center following his coronavirus diagnosis. Pence is expected to be under significant scrutiny for his role as the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force and the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans under his leadership. He’s also taken a more singular approach to interpersonal norms in the past, refusing to dine alone with a woman who’s not his wife.

Although vice presidential nominees haven’t historically had a major effect on the electoral outcome of the general election, Biden’s age and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis (as well as his age) have renewed the spotlight on both Pence and Harris. Due to biases related to both gender and race, their performances could well be treated very differently.

“Women must show they are strong enough yet not appear to be too tough in order to maintain likability, a nonnegotiable for women candidates,” Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, told Vox. For Black women in particular, that pressure is even more pronounced.

Harris is the first woman of color to take the debate stage in a general presidential election

Harris will be the first Black woman and first South Asian American woman to participate in a presidential or vice presidential debate in a general election. As a result, she’ll likely face misogynoir, or “the unique brand of misogyny that Black women face because of the combination of their gender and race,” Cineas explained in August.

Past debates have highlighted how the dynamics of both gender and race can play a role. In 2016, Trump handled himself against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton much like he did against Biden in 2020: interrupting her frequently and even at one point stalking her across the debate stage. “I generally think of these debates as performances of masculinity,” Santa Clara University political science professor Anna Sampaio told Vox.

Clinton’s response at the time was quite measured and calm, a striking contrast to how Biden was able to react, prompting writer Jill Filipovic to wonder on Twitter whether Clinton was also itching to tell Trump to “shut up, man.” (Clinton’s pointed reply: “You have no idea.”)

Sampaio noted that Clinton’s understated reaction was likely due to the pressures women still face to reflect dated norms about femininity, which they could get penalized for ignoring. “Women can’t lose their cool because it’s evidence that undercuts their electability, whereas men losing their cool makes them look strong,” Sampaio said.

The sexism was even more evident in the vice presidential debate between Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and President George H.W. Bush in 1984. “Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon,” Bush said at one point — a statement widely viewed as patronizing, said Hunter. The moderator, Knight Ridder’s Robert Boyd, also highlighted gender specifically to question Ferraro’s qualifications: “Do you think in any way that the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” Boyd asked.

Meanwhile, University of Virginia political science professor Jennifer Lawless pointed to the vice presidential debate between Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 as one in which both candidates struck an effective tone. “Substance aside, she was quite likable in the debate, and he didn’t belittle her and demean her,” Lawless told Vox. Biden’s debate prep at the time focused heavily on “not coming across as sexist or a bully,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Harris has to deal with racist tropes as well as sexist ones. Bigoted statements were used to undercut Barack Obama’s candidacy, too, including in 2008, when Palin accused him of “palling around with terrorists” and told voters he was “not a man who sees America as you see it.” In an odd moment during one debate, Sen. John McCain referred to Obama as “that one” instead of by name. Many weren’t sure how to interpret the remark, though the Center for Social Inclusion said it was an attempt to “otherize Obama,” while other political operatives felt it was just awkward delivery.

Harris is known for confronting Trump appointees in Congress — and she could do the same with Pence

Harris has made a name for herself in the Senate, in part because of how effectively she’s confronted Trump appointees like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, current Attorney General Bill Barr, and Kavanaugh. Wednesday’s debate is a chance for her to do the same with Pence.

Experts told Vox that while Harris may have to contend with stereotypes her opponents would like to levy, her expertise as a prosecutor — and performance in past hearings and debates — have led people to expect, and often celebrate, her direct and effective questioning.

“She has pointed out discrepancies between the administration’s stated policies and expressed values. I don’t expect to see anything different,” said Purdue University’s Brown.

Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis isn’t something that experts see limiting Harris’s ability to directly confront Pence about the administration’s handling of the pandemic, given the president’s decision to return to the White House and his refusal to take accountability for his failed coronavirus response. It’s also an opportunity for Harris to highlight the racial and economic disparities that have been exacerbated by the White House’s inaction, something she hasn’t shied away from doing.

Harris will have to pick her moments carefully, however — Pence is known for his placid performance during the 2016 vice presidential debate, where he drew a sharp contrast to the more aggressive approach of Clinton running mate Sen. Tim Kaine. Nevertheless, she has a rich target in the vice president.

“The fact that the president has checked himself out of Walter Reed, taken off his mask, and endangered thousands of people’s lives — I feel she should be free to do whatever she wants,” said Lawless.

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