Kamala Harris and the fallibility of identity politics

Originally published for Vox Media.


National campaigns are, first and foremost, an exercise in storytelling patterned after well-known themes — David versus Goliath, the Haves versus the Have Nots, the fearless vigilante for justice. It is rarely the case that a candidate is unintentionally placed on a presidential track of any party; it’s a path years in the making, a confluence of strategic decisions, affiliations, and opportunities for high-profile moments. Whether a candidate’s messaging holds, however, is subject to whether it tracks with its target audience.

Which brings us to Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris’s national odyssey commenced in 2012 when, as California’s attorney general, she gave a brief speech endorsing then-President Barack Obama for a second term at the Democratic National Convention. When she ran for Senate in 2016, Obama gave her an endorsement of his own. The self-ascribed “top cop” rhetoric that originally came into national parlance during her congressional race (and has been a pain in her side ever since) was quickly subsumed by a newfound reputation of “unflappable truth advocate” once she was elected and went viral for handing it to Jeff Sessions in a committee hearing. By the time she made her 2020 presidential announcement in January, she was riding on both a “nevertheless, she persisted” narrative and bona fides that harked back to the characteristics of the Democratic Party’s golden child, Obama. Harris had positioned herself as not only the most accomplished Black woman to ever run for executive office, but seemingly the most electable candidate.

In a post-Obama era, she also appeared as a close facsimile of many of the characteristics that made Michelle Obama so adored not just by Black women but women in general (she even earned Hillary Clinton’s support). And throughout the ensuing 11 months, one word anchored her campaign, officially called Kamala Harris for the People: identity.

But, ultimately, banking on identity wasn’t enough.

Kamala Harris speaks to Amos Jackson III, Executive President of the Howard University Student Association, and Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President, after announcing her presidential candidacy at her alma mater, Howard University, on January 21, 2019.

Because aside from being a Black woman and former prosecutor with ties to Obama, many still wondered: Who is Kamala Harris? Is she a “cop” or a reformist? Where did the former prosecutor stand on advocating for Black issues, especially when it came to criminal justice in the Black Lives Matter era? What were her tangible positions on health care? The debate stage, instead of serving as the platform to consolidate her message, accomplished the inverse. Save for early parries with Joe Biden on school segregation (that she later chose to partially renege on), her talking points largely coalesced around indicting the sitting president, and even provided openings for more marginal candidates such as Tulsi Gabbard to capitalize on the dissonance that undermined any attempt at progressing her campaign. Her team seemed unsure of which Democratic voters to try to court first — and weren’t successful in courting those who hadshifted further left since Obama and were no longer moved by charismatic messaging that wasn’t underpinned by clear substantive policy.

This failure to significantly shift accordingly rendered itself in the polls. Despite having a fundraising war chest that rivaled former Vice President Joe Biden’s throughout the entirety of her presidential bid (granted, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had higher fundraising numbers), Harris never polled higher than third place, falling to fourth after being surpassed by Warren and, most recently, falling to fifth due to a recent spike in Pete Buttigieg’s campaign going into Iowa.

Ultimately, underscoring her identity generated mixed results — in the waning weeks of her campaign, only 4 percent of Black voters polled identified Harris as their first choice.Butit didn’t stave off efforts to leverage the groups in which she shared kinship — Black voters, women voters, Indian American voters, and first-generation voters — to the magnitude that she could maximize the utility of “identity politics.” Which surprised many: In a world where the threat of the Trump administration looms large over our most marginalized, who seemed a better advocate than a candidate who represents those demographics that are most at risk, paired with the skills to prosecute criminals?Advertisement

Therein lies the seductive appeal of identity politics, as well as its fatal flaw: stripping the complex nuances of the individual in favor of assigning representative moral value based on a singular characteristic of a collective group. Harris is not going to engender fealty from Black voters simply because she is a Black woman, just as her career as prosecutor — which includes a contentious truancy law and her office arguing to deny early release for prisoners — wasn’t going to turn off all Black voters, either. Applying universal claims in a vacuum denies them both power and context; saying that you have the power and skill to put the current president behind bars, for example, while certainly gratifying to anxious Democratic voters, loses its teeth when you are reminded that the same skills are used to facilitate this country’s race-based mass incarceration system.

Her campaign’s ultimate decline followed a perfect tempest of several events: unremarkable performances during recent debates coming on the heels of flubs during criminal justice conversations, and declining polls going into Iowa that correlated not just with attacks from opponents in the media and the political field, but a perilous lack of financial ad-buying power. The latter, courtesy of the 24-hour 2020 presidential cycle, gave way for the revelation of the rumored months-long turmoil that had been building within the campaign, including mismanaged budgets and frustrated staffers.

When challenged on her prosecutorial record during her Senate race, Harris and her advocates pointed out that as a Black woman, “you’re held to a different standard,” a rejoinder that has resurfaced now that she has suspended her campaign. This is correct on its face, but it’s unchallenging to link the trigger of her campaign’s demise to groups that circulated viral cop jokes; history is not set in motion by a singular event. Confronting race and gender bias shouldn’t belie the fact that her record and inconsistent voice mattered to a swath of voters she was expected to attract — and she ran out of budget to work to substantively shift that perception. While identity politics tends to trade in pathological assumptions of behavior, again, Black voters or women voters are far from a non-differentiable monolith.

So when you list the demographics of the other candidates that remain — not just race and gender, but also wealth and experience — it can be tempting to view Harris dropping out as a fundamental injustice. But the calculus isn’t as simple as who remains and who does not. Harris had to choose whether or not to exit the campaign before a verdict of her viability could be rendered for her in her own home state. As such, Harris is less of a martyr to inequity than someone who made a strategic decision to regain control of the remainder of her political career, which, by all measures, should be enduring.

Ultimately, Senator Harris will be fine. And while it is understandable for her ardent advocates to lament what could have been, her $10 million in remaining funds will likely be used for preparing for the upcoming Senate reelection race or a plan to return to the presidential scene in 2024, re-energized, re-focused, and without the blemish of a formal primary loss on her record.

In every defeat there are lessons to be learned. For her largest advocates, the wound of realizing that their shared kinship was not as widespread as initially conceived may take a while to heal. But our obligations as voters demand that we hold our favored candidates accountable to the commitments they make to their constituency, and push them to understand what representation really means in 2020. This includes listening to the policies constituents want, and not only grasping but representing a new rubric of fighting for justice.

On Lena Waithe and the Danger of Pinning Your Creative Authenticity to Your Activism

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas.

When it was announced that rising actor Jason Mitchell—known for his performances in Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound and The Chi—had not only been released from his contract as a series regular on The Chi but was removed from an upcoming Netflix film (and dropped by his agent and manager), the initial response was a consensus: For him to get shunned by the industry this swiftly, whatever offenses he’s accused of must have been beyond the pale.

Even more surprising was that many of the alleged offenses happened on the set of The Chi, the brainchild of self-professed Time’s Up activist Lena Waithe, who hasgone on record stating “If you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I’ll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”

As we now know, the forcefulness of her language belies the truth of what happened on set. Tiffany Boone, who played Mitchell’s character’s girlfriend Jerrika, endured harassment for the first two seasons of the show to the point that her fiancé had to come on set whenever she shot scenes with Mitchell. And at least one other actress filed complaints—as well as Ayanna Floyd Davis, the showrunner for season two. It took 10 days, however, for Waithe herself to speak on the record about the accusations and fallout—choosing the platform of a 40-minute phone interview with Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club.

It comes off as a curiously intentional decision when you consider that in the window between the public discovery about Mitchell and her one-on-one with Charlamagne, Waithe guest hosted an episode an of Jimmy Kimmel Live, replete with a viral kiss with Halle Berry, with nary a mention of the crisis existing on the set of her show.

Despite work by multiple organizations and public figures to get the harassment of black women covered on a national scale and Waithe’s own self-avowed affiliation with national organizations with Hollywood ties, when it came time to address issues within her own purview, it became an “in-house” discussion. And one with a moderator who has had his own problematic past with black women.

In The Breakfast Club interview, when asked about the measures she took upon being made aware that Boone endured harassment in the first season, Waithe stressed that she took action by placing women of color in positions of power, a tactic that would seem to only expose more women to Mitchell’s alleged abuse. (And in hindsight did, considering Davis filed complaints of her own.)

Placing figureheads as a countermeasure isn’t a controlling agent for behavior nor is it accountability—it’s a toothless symbolism without any reasonable expectation of change. These certainly aren’t recommended practices (pdf) in the Leading With Transparency guidelines provided by the Time’s Up organization on navigating sexual harassment in the workplace. Given the pile of quicksand Davis walked into, it’s no wonder she was unable to stem the chronic harassment from recurring and even being directed her way, a point Waithe seemed to omit when discussing her regrets of “trusting someone else to do my job.”

When it comes to the matter of Waithe’s job within the universe of The Chi and in the activist-minded cultural space she simultaneously wants to inhabit, there are some blatant contradictions—seemingly borne out of a desire to exist both in the world of the haves and the have nots. In the same breath that we are informed she ensured that the season two staff was helmed by black women, she insisted that despite being the creator and executive producer with multiple writing credits and an Emmy to her name, she didn’t have much influence in the firing decisions—a sentiment she reiterates at the 15:30 mark of the video, when defending her choice to allow Boone to leave as opposed to lobbying for Mitchell’s departure: “I’m not in control over who really stays or who goes in the show…the truth is, there’s a world in which I can say it’s me or Jason, and they may take Jason.”

It’s an incongruous juxtaposition that recurs throughout the conversation, rendering it difficult to parse through the true nature of Waithe’s position. Starting at 6:25, for example, there’s a protracted discussion in which she proudly establishes herself as both being regularly on set on her shows, making sure it is a safe space for women during sensitive moments, before adjusting her position around 8:45 to that of a boss with too many employees to manage all of the comings and goings and needing to delegate it out to trusted individuals.

In regard to Boone’s season two return, the initial disclosure was that by the time Waithe was made privy to the situation, both Boone and Mitchell had come to an agreement and were willing to work together again, only for Waithe to mention that she sat with Boone and implored her to “give me an opportunity to change your environment.” This act seems innocuous on its face, but adjusts the level of involvement she purportedly has. These statements were made one right after the other—13:35 minutes in—making it difficult to comprehend exactly what Waithe knew and when.

To date, we still don’t know the specifics of all the allegations against Mitchell—Waithe alleges not to know them herself—and they are frankly irrelevant. While the specifics will certainly leak in due time, if Mitchell did create an unsafe working environment for several women, many of them black, that is reason enough to hold him accountable immediately.

For Lena, the palpable disappointment of many of her fans lies in the fact that she seems to be incapable of divorcing her need to protect her brand as an advocate and champion for the marginalized from providing clear accountability on the failures that endangered multiple women on the show. When she had her own opportunity to “lead with transparency,” she instead chose to sidestep, displacing as much blame as possible to another woman—who also endured harassment—while also subtly victim-blaming as justification for her failure to act in a truly productive manner.

In a piece I wrote a while ago on cancel culture and public apologies, linguist Edwin Battistella explained how the initial apologies are almost always guided by self-interest, stating “people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”

In many ways, this describes what is playing out with Waithe now. In expecting her identity and political capital to bolster her through this PR moment, she forgot that her political capital is tied to whether or not she truly upholds the rubric of the moral fabric that she claims to stand behind. This incident was a failure in that regard—an exercise in extemporaneous self-defense as opposed to empathy and clarity.

Near the end of The Breakfast Club interview, Waithe states to Charlamagne, “Hollywood needs to be a safe space for black women and I think we all need to do better about that.” The sentiment is a beautifully worded logical fallacy, pointing the finger back at the world before allowing anyone to hold her accountable for her clear failings as the name and advocate behind this project. It would truly be unfortunate if that in all the women Lena failed here, the last one would be herself.

What Ramy Gets Wrong About Muslim Women

Originally published for The Atlantic.

This article contains spoilers throughout Season 1 of Ramy.Hulu’s new series Ramy depicts a fictionalized version of the life of its star and co-creator, Ramy Youssef (named Ramy Hassan on the show), a Millennial Egyptian American from a robust North Jersey Muslim community. Along with the co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious man from an immigrant family with wry humor and a dash of surrealism. Continue reading

Megan Thee Stallion and the Persistence of Music Journalism’s Misogyny

Originally published for Broadly.

It felt predatory. In a resurfaced two-minute clip, rising Houston rap phenom Megan Thee Stallion (b. Megan Pete) is interviewed by a man named DJ Smallz Eyes. Instead of sticking to questions about her lauded freestyle ability, ascent in the Southern rap scene, or currently being a student at Texas Southern University, he questions the 23-year-old about elective surgery. At an especially cringe-worthy moment, Smallz Eyes asks her “Did you develop early?” —a question that seems to have no other purpose than to fulfill the school-boy fantasies of anyone watching. Continue reading

On The Magic Of The Black Muslim Girl Experience

Originally published for Nylon Magazine.

In Islamic theology, there is the concept of the Jinn—beings born of a “smokeless” fire in another dimension, beyond human but with the same frailties; neither inherently good nor bad, with a fiendish streak that is documented not just in the Holy Quran but in Hadith, and just as capable of salvation or damnation as the rest of us. Of the five kinds of Jinn—Marid, Effrit, Ghoul, Sila, Vetala—the Sila are considered to be one of the rarest, typified by a seductive feminine energy and shapeshifting capability. Continue reading

THE INSULT AND INTIMIDATION OF BLACK WOMEN IS AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE

Originally posted on VerySmartBrothas.

In an ideal world, we would spend the next few hundred words articulating the significance of a Black woman achieving rapid career acceleration in the entertainment industry after decades of hard work. Leslie Jones’s addition to SNL, an institution Whiter than tampon commercial underwear, is a major accomplishment. As is her being cast in the Ghostbusters reboot.

Instead, we are forced to lament what continues to be the striking reality for Black women in the age of social media. That with increased visibility comes increased vitriol. And that we exist in a society that feels entitled to dictate the narrow confines of where Black women are allowed to flourish versus the spaces that we should not encroach.

This isn’t a tale limited to Leslie; the Rio Olympics had us revisiting the targeted insults lobbied at Gabby Douglas, a young woman who has also been open about how the ill-spirited commentary affected her. Talk to any Black woman of any level of notoriety or platform in social media and you’ll be regaled with tale after tale of unprompted gender-based and race-based (and sometimes both at the same time) hate speech from keyboard trolls the world over. Ultimately, the plight of online harassment, on Twitter especially, has been an oft-discussed problem that seems to have received minimal traction from the company on a grand scale.

One could argue that yes, this happens to many women regardless of race. But the layering of race is too critical to ignore here as just a minor component. Jones’s costars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon certainly haven’t been compared to a deceased silverback gorilla. Or referred to as “big-lipped coons.” Or been the target or a publicly coordinated attack by a Breitbart writer. Or any of the other vitriolic slurs that targeted not just Leslie’s gender, but her race, as well as her aesthetic existing on the outliers of what is viewed as traditionally beautiful for Hollywood elite. Jones has been forced to bear the brunt of the attacks herself, with limited public support (if any) from her costars, a circumstance, which, by her own admission, she is used to. An unfortunate reality for a Black woman with a certain level of exposure.

This all came to a head, when hackers infiltrated Leslie’s personal website with her sensitive personal information, not only doxing her, but leaking nude photos from her iCloud and uploading a video of the deceased gorilla Harambe.

The last time this happened on a major scale — with the victims being Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, amongst others — the public outcry was so deafening that the FBI got involved. I’m still awaiting for any of these two conditions to arise in the light of these circumstances. At the time of writing, her costars have yet to comment publicly in support of Leslie’s continuously unwarranted plight. (Editor’s note: The FBI is involved now.)

Instead, what I have witnessed is a plethora of jokes at Leslie’s expense with regards to leaking her nudes; as if a woman who doesn’t fit the perceived mainstream standards of desirability should be less entitled to outrage at her violation of privacy than the Jennifer Lawrences and Scarlett Johannsons of the world. The impetus behind leaking, after all, isn’t just to share the bits and kibbles of America’s most beautiful; its to inflict shame and embarrassment upon women for exercising the right to celebrate their body at their discretion. And the additional layer of comparing Leslie’s physical aesthetic to that of an animal — a comparison with historically racist implications — is intended to add further insult to her public exposure, inviting criticisms to the concept of her or anyone else celebrating her form as an exercise in mockery and humiliation.

It shouldn’t be expected of Leslie to just persevere and rise above this. While it is admirable that she has so far transformed the spurts of written violence into moments of awareness and advocacy, that isn’t a weight that she should have to carry alone, and the absence of certain voices to uplift her in these trials and tribulations is also deafening. We shouldn’t be expecting Leslie to push through this adversity, we should be demanding civility and gatekeeping from the arbiters of the ecosystem that was intended to be built for healthy public engagement and not hate speech. Cyberbullying against Black Women shouldn’t be our expected burden to bear; we are people, not battering rams, entitled to justice, civility and a base-level respect that should be afforded to any human at all levels of celebrity. As social media continues to expand and transform, it is paramount that we collectively hold accountable the gatekeepers of the applications we keep viable via our engagement, and demand that the protection of Black women from targeted attacks be prioritized in the ongoing battles of cyberbullying and internet harassment.

ONCE AGAIN, BLACK WOMEN DID THE WORK WHITE WOMEN REFUSED TO

Originally published on VerySmartBrothas.

There will be plenty of time in the coming days, weeks and months to do a full post-mortem on what just happened last night — exactly how and why every projection was wildly wrong, what could have been done differently, whether or not Mike Pence is a sentient Death Eater, et cetera. There are a lot of assessments that we’re not far enough removed from to truly examine.

One thing is clear, however: this is not on us. And when I say “us” I mean that on multiple levels: Communities of Color, Black People, and ultimately, my fellow Black Women.

The exit polls are in. Despite all of the fair and empirical reservations Black Women had on putting our future in a Clinton presidency for a second time, 91 percent of Black Women with a college degree voted for HRC. Without a college degree? 95% No matter how concerned we were about how vested the Democratic leadership was in tending to our interests and our issues, we fell in line and carried the load that was demanded of us — as we’ve done time and again.

Conversely, the exit numbers on White women? Madame Clinton barely got a majority of college educated women, and was damn near pushed out 2-to-1 to White women without a college degree. When you continue to slice the data around the White Woman’s vote (party fealty, religious evangelism, age, etc), you have no option but to come to the conclusion that Clinton absolutely lost the White Woman block that was assumed to be in the bag.

This bring us to the message we’ve known for quite some time. When forced to choose between race and gender lines, White Women will overwhelmingly pick race, every time. We knew it when Susan B Anthony said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” We knew it when a disgruntled White female college student took her case against Affirmative Action all the way to the Supreme freaking Court, even though White Women are empirically the largest beneficiaries from said Affirmative Action.

In many ways, this election was a litmus test. When faced with a choice, where would the debris fall? Black people certainly didn’t underperform at the polls. For all of the paternalistic criticism the Black and POC communities have received over the past few weeks — being told to tell Cousin Pookie to vote and berated on the futility of the 3rd party vote — we showed up at the polls and fell in line for what was perceived to be the greater good, arguably against some of our own interests. Meanwhile 66% of White women voted for racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and all around incompetence.

The verdict is in. No matter what your social media news feeds or your group chats or your brunches may imply, the fact of the matter is we are not nearly progressive as a nation as we purport to be. But that burden is not on us. We as Black people — as Black Women — don’t bear the weight of the loss. If anything, we can breathe easier as the rest of the world is being exposed to what we’ve known for over a century. That White Feminism still rests on the laurels of White Supremacy. And that’s not changing anytime soon.

My mother is a black immigrant. Today’s feminism doesn’t reflect her experience.

Originally posted in Washington Post’s “In Theory” section.

The first time I can remember hearing the word “feminist” in any capacity was in middle school, back when we had to complete presentations on suffragists during Women’s History Month. However, it wasn’t my book report on Susan B. Anthony (or whomever it was) that served as my introduction to feminism.

Continue reading