When Senator Kamala Harris was called “hysterical” by a former Donald Trump campaign adviser on CNN, reporter Tanzina Vega invited other women of color to share their own stories of being dismissed, belittled, or demeaned. The responses poured in. In them, I found comfort and familiarity. Although I didn’t know the women behind the Twitter handles, I felt a solidarity with my fellow sisters who have been disrespected based on their gender and race.
Not to play in the Oppression Olympics, but being both a woman and a woman of color, I have had to deal with both – all of my life.
In my seventh grade home economics class, due to the fact that my favorite teacher was on maternity leave, a substitute teacher was tasked with grading our scrapbooks. In these books, we were supposed to detail where we saw ourselves as adults. We all knew our final grade was hinging on the extent of our creativity. I may have been a bit cocky, but I knew I was going to knock it out of the park. When our scrapbooks were handed back, I found I’d earned a 99 out of 100.
When I turned to the last page, a note from the substitute informed me I was docked a point because my scrapbook was “unrealistic.” When I asked for her to explain, she stated in full detail that someone like me couldn’t own a company, because “my people” didn’t own companies. I opened my mouth to rattle off the accomplishments of my hero Oprah, but before I could get out the “O,” she cut me off and claimed Oprah was the exception to the rule. Oprah was “lucky.” I had never felt more ashamed because I didn’t push further. I didn’t speak up.
That’s where the strong, black women in my life came in: my mother, Grams, and Aunt. They wouldn’t allow the injustice to go unnoticed. They encouraged me to speak up, to push back. That night, at home, we plotted. The final consensus was that I would research and list the profession, racial background, and net worth of people of color who were millionaires and owned companies. By the end of the night, due to my overachieving personality, I had listed 100 names, to represent the 100 she did not give me. The next day, I placed the paper on the substitute’s desk, looked her in the eye, and stated that I alphabetized a list of not just my people – who are African Americans, if she wasn’t aware – but people of color from various backgrounds who owned their own companies. I also added that she wasn’t the authoritative voice to deem whether my dreams were valid or not.
Of course I was terrified. I hate confrontation. But the shame that I felt from the day before pushed me. From that moment on, I decided that I never wanted to feel ashamed for the color of my skin or who my people were. Because even though I am a product of lost history, my story does not begin with slavery or end with the Civil Rights movement. I was almost kicked out of the class that day. The substitute told my teacher that I was combative, aggressive, and should have been suspended for my insubordination. But I still got the 100. Because I worked hard for it.
I’m 22 now. Whether it’s being conscious of the way I dress as a fuller-figured woman in academic and corporate settings or the high pitched lilt of my Long Island “accent,” I am constantly aware of how people might perceive me as a black woman. I even have to watch the tone of my voice so I sound authoritative. (Hello, uptalking!) But that is when being a woman of color comes into play and presents me with a quandary. Seriously: how can I channel being a girl boss and lean in without being labeled an Angry Black Woman because of the tone of my voice? As a black woman, the reality is that I am not allowed to be a girl boss or lean in the same spaces without my every move being dissected. But I refuse to let that keep me from speaking up and taking charge when it is warranted.
Back when I was in the seventh grade, it was the black women who surrounded me who made me grow the confidence to be assertive in the professional and academic aspects of my life today, even when others may not view me in that light. That is why women like Senator Kamala Harris are so important not only to my generation but to generations of women who will pass the torch to the next. I’ve known black women like Senator Harris all of my life – women who speak up, talk back, challenge power, and most importantly make noise! And while some might attempt to write us off as hysterical, guess what? We can never be silenced.