The US vice-presidential candidate debate between Kamala Harris & Mike Pence shone the spotlight on the challenges women face in the workplace
US Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris during the debate (AP photo)
A few weeks back, the hashtag #MrVicePresidentImspeaking trended on Twitter. It referred to the head-to-head US vice-presidential candidate debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence—interestingly, the fly which sat atop Vice President Pence’s head also found itself the subject of many a meme.
A rather civil debate, the face-off (with acrylic sheet barriers between the two) had both candidates arguing on topics such as the economy, climate, China, Harris’ prosecutorial record and the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. Harris described the handling of the pandemic as “the greatest failure” of any administration in the US’s history. In the process, the debate also shone the spotlight on the challenges black women face in politics. Being the first woman of colour to be chosen for a major party ticket, it was clearly expected of Harris to not only follow the rules of the debate, but also the unspoken rules of her gender and race—to be calm and resist anger. Her body language and facial expressions, however, conveyed more than what she said.
During the debate, Pence interrupted Harris 10 times, twice as often as Harris spoke over him, according to CBS, an American commercial broadcast television and radio network. Not surprisingly, the catchphrase—’I’m speaking’—that Harris used when she was repeatedly interrupted became a rage on social media. A deluge of responses, criticism, appreciation and regrets poured in from all over the world. It was a talking point for the media, brands, merchandise and trolls. A hot slogan depicting the character and voice of feminism.
According to a report in The New York Times, the phrase was printed all over merchandise, ranging from T-shirts to laptop decals. The merchandise, in fact, went up for sale on Etsy within a few hours.
Harris gave some solid arguments in the debate: “I will not sit here and be lectured by the Vice President on what it means to enforce the laws of our country. I’m the only one on the stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide,” she said, referring to her time as a prosecutor.
Her repeated head shakes, body language and firm reactions helped her regain ground so politely that the slogan became a voice for feminism. She is today the most prevalent among Indian-Americans and also represents the global black freedom struggle. As a feminist crusader, both as attorney general of California and now as a member of the US Senate, Harris has championed women’s causes and rejected policies that show disregard for civil liberties and constitutional law.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Harris has risen as a prominent and powerful feminist voice. In 2017, too, she made her voice heard after her male colleagues shushed her during a high-profile Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, demanding that she show more ‘courtesy’ as she questioned the attorney general about the Russia probe.
“The needle Kamala threaded as a black woman needs to be acknowledged. How we’re perceived is based on a short list of ‘permissible’ behaviour. She was strong, uncompromising and authentic without falling for bait meant to cast her as an ‘angry black woman.’ I’m in awe,” Los Angeles-based writer Natasha Rothwell said in a tweet.
American actor Mark Ruffalo tweeted: “Just going over it all in my head. The way Mike Pence constantly interrupted and spoke over @KamalaHarris was the prime example of white male supremacy and its common dismissal and disrespect for black woman.”
Numerous studies show that women are interrupted more than men and that men dominate conversations. Workplaces, in fact, are full of such encounters and so are homes and schools. Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor of political science in Pittsburg, tweeted, “’Mr Vice President, I’m speaking’ @KamalaHarris is every woman who has ever been talked over in her workplace.”
Another commoner said, “I noticed. I think every woman needs to have the GIF of @KamalaHarris saying ‘I’m speaking’ with that huge smile on her face on their desktops/phones/etc. to pull up during meetings.”
Indian dairy brand Amul, too, made a doodle: ‘Mr Vice President I’m Snacking’. The Amul girl was shown as Kamala Harris with Pence sitting opposite her and arguing. The doodle, ‘Eat without interruptions’ also had a fly on Pence’s head.
It was evident from the debate that men do not have to follow any rules. Writer Jessica Bennett, the author of Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, outlined in a 2015 Time column that “manterrupting” can only be fixed with a conscious realisation of gender bias and establishment of boundaries that explicitly ban interrupting.