October 2020 Blog – On “Double Standards for Black Women”

Posted in: Leader's Blog

Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris deals simultaneously with both racism and sexism. Hillary Clinton, who faced misogyny campaigning for the presidency, warned Harris to “be prepared…to have the most horrible things said about you.’’ When Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, some declared that America had become “post-racial,” yet our first Black president was contantly attacked by racists.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid points out how in the primaries, narratives seemed “very bullish toward white, male candidates, and lukewarm on women and minorities.” Julián Castro, who competed against Harris for the nomination, added that the press held Harris “to a different standard—a double standard—[which] has been grossly unfair and unfortunate.”  Harris was called too ambitious and too assertive for simply “following a long tradition of White men,” as stated by the Washington Post.

Harris has to withstand backhanded compliments, such as when she was praised for being “articulate.” Such phrasing implies that the person in question is a racial exception. Professor Michael Eric Dyson explains how inherently offensive and obviously racist it is to suggest that white people are naturally more articulate than Black people.

Such “racialized signaling” weighs Black women down with “the imposter syndrome” and perfectionism. Black women are made to doubt their capacities and are pressured to be better than “merely” outstanding.  As Forbes magazine’s Rhonesha Byn puts it, Black women “have to be twice as good and work twice as hard,” often for half the pay. 

Many Black women at the top of their professions know the financial cost of this double standard.  When Serena Williams had an emotional outburst in a match, she was punished financially. John McEnroe, who admits that he did “far worse” without being fined, condemned this gendered double standard. Tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote that Williams “was penalized for standing up for herself.” Black women have long been saddled with such economic disadvantage. Domestic and farm workers – disproportionately Black women – have been consistently denied collective bargaining, minimum wage, overtime and other benefits. (For more on pay inequities, go here and here.)

Maybe things will change as more women of color run for legislative positions.  In 2012, 48 women of color ran for Congress. That number has risen steadily to 122 in 2020. As Meagé Clements of U. of Maryland’s Women’s Center put it, Black women are getting comfortable “taking up space.” Escaping the traps of low expectations and double standards, perhaps Kamala Harris will soon take up space in the Vice President’s mansion.


Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?


Action #1 –  Call out liberals who are uaware of their subtle racism, such as that shown by Bernie Sanders in his interview on MSNBC. Sanders began innocently enough, saying “I will tell you that Kamala is very smart, very aggressive.” Then, as explained by Dr. H. Samy Alim and Dr. Geneva Smitherman,authors of Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S., Sanders delivered “the inevitable, racialized compliment that makes many African-Americans cringe”: “very articulate.” Read more from Alim and Smitherman here and read more about “articulate” and other loaded words are infused with subtle racism here.

Action #2 – Advocate for counseling help for students of color like Meagé Clements who felt trapped in an unwinnable situation: “Despite earning the grades and being just as qualified, if not more qualified than many of my peers, I doubted myself and whether I truly belonged and I continued to try and find ways to prove that to myself and others. During the meeting, I found that I was not alone in this sentiment, and that this was something that nearly everyone experienced; however, this persistent self-doubt impacts women of color differently for a number of reasons. Consequently, even when our accomplishments result from our own hard work, we still feel inadequate.” Read more about the perfectionism that pressed down on Ms. Clements here.

Action #3 – Demand an end to double standards, such as those used against Serena Williams. Often they lead to more blatant racial smears, including an Australian newspaper which published a caricature of Williams as a hulking, fat lipped, angry brute of a woman, stomping in rage alongside her competitor — a Japanese-Haitian tennis player depicted as a white, lithe, blonde woman. For more, go here.

Action #4 – Watch the Vice Presidential debate and pay attention to the post debate analysis – point out examples of double standards and racially-biased critiques of Harris. (NOTE: While she is sometimes described as the first Black vice-presidential candidate, in 1952 Charlotta Bass ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket. Maybe Harris can draw on Bass’s legacy for strength.


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