When Kamala D. Harris announced that she was running for president, the reaction reminded me of the summer of 1991. That’s when I learned that black women are not allowed to be leaders or speak out without facing vicious backlash. I was 11 and my sister was 6, and the Anita Hill controversy was enraging people across the country.
We played halfheartedly at the periphery of the chaos and eavesdropped as our mom, our stepfamily and their friends sat around the television watching a black woman testify in a Senate hearing against a black man who was being considered for the job of Supreme Court justice. My sister and I didn’t know what a Supreme Court justice was, but the tone in which those words were spoken meant the man was important, and he was black like us. It was a big deal.
I didn’t grasp how the Senate hearing worked, but understood that my mom and all the adults hated this woman. Words such as “gold digger,” “homewrecker” and “floozy” were linked with terms like “taking a black man down,” “man’s temptation” and “a man’s weakness.” Several references were made to Eve, apples and snakes. We were church kids and smart readers, so it wasn’t hard to figure out what they were saying. None of the adults realized then that their words about Hill would later create hurdles for my sister and me.
Kids hear and understand more than we realize. We know that kids internalize the words we use to refer to and describe them. Psychologists, teachers and even the federal government have studied and produced material to help parents with word choice when referring to their children.
But the words we use to describe other people matter, too, especially when the kid is a black girl watching and listening to her parents refer to a woman running for one of the highest offices in the land as someone who succeeded by “sleeping her way to the top,” a “housebreaking vixen” or the “top cop,” a person who enforces racist laws at the expense of the black community. Kids get so many of their beliefs and ideas from the adults they love and trust, particularly their parents.
This is especially true for girls growing up in a world where rape culture still informs policies and men are legislating our bodies. The words we use to describe the people our daughters admire matter, because they can create mental barriers, like the hurdles my sister and I had to overcome.
Those hurdles threatened to derail us as we climbed the ladders of our careers. As we came in contact with black men, we would wonder if we were “getting in his way” and would never dream of doing anything to “bring him down.” At one point, when I was on the board of directors for a city agency, I was speaking with a black man from another agency. His words were sexist and insulting, but I could not bring myself to report him. I could not be the one to bring him down, that woman who was getting in the way of a black man, wrecking homes, or weakening men by speaking out against them or competing against them.
Jennifer Vandenbergh, a school psychologist in La Porte, Ind., says, “Hearing negative stereotypes shared about women of color in power (angry, etc.) feeds into the thought that they cannot be ambitious and aim for those positions of power, because they will be seen ‘that way.’”
The girls, as my sister and I were, are trapped by the ideas of their parents and have no way to reason around them or to wade through the falsehoods that even their parents fall for sometimes. So, the words used to describe women of color in leadership become facts in their minds, because there is no higher authority than a parent. The kids are also not equipped to dispute what they are hearing, nor do they know that challenging a parent is an option. What adults say about these women influences not just how a girl sees the woman, but how she sees herself, now and in the future.
“If they hear people noting that there is a current generation of women of color in power who are making a mark in the government, it empowers them,” Vandenbergh says. “They see and hear about representation and begin to truly, internally feel that the same is possible for themselves.”
She added that younger girls are particularly vulnerable, “because they are not able to seek out their own sources of information” and thus rely more on what they hear from their parents and other trusted adults.
She offers a few ways to accomplish this. “I think it is important to speak positively at home about these women while still recognizing that they are unique individuals who aren’t perfect,” she says. “Discuss the differences in how the same personality traits in a black woman and white man may be described differently and the implicit bias that can lead to that.”
Protecting the future of our black girls is more than enough reason to take note and correct this discrepancy. I don’t want my daughter backing down from a leadership position she deserves because of mental hurdles, or words she heard as a girl.
Our daughters are watching and listening to the adult debates going on around them. Be careful how you talk about these candidates.
Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @JonitaLDavis.