Senator John McCain and Attorney General Jefferson “I-Can’t-Recall” Sessions are g’on learn. For them, and legions of other smug, entitled, insecure, racist White misogynist men, Black women like Senator Kamala Harris are going to be teachers they ain’t never gonna forget.
Last week, Sessions traveled to Capitol Hill as part of a futile attempt to explain away his complicity in the shit show that is the Trump administration. (It’s so bad over there at the White House that just about everybody has lawyered up. Even Trump’s lawyer got a lawyer. And last I read, Republicans are turning down job offers because they don’t want to work for a president who is a can or two short of a six-pack.) Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions dodged more questions than a cheating boyfriend, citing some secret policy only known to him that prevents him from testifying about any conversation or interaction with the president.
His refusal to answer simple questions produced an anti-climatic hearing that had Democratic senators repeatedly asking for the legal justification for his evasion.
Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, did what all the senators were supposed to do: She pressed Sessions, insisting he identify the specific policy that prevented him from answering questions from members of the committee, and whether he’d discussed that policy with his staff before the hearing. But Sessions took the cowardly approach and attempted to filibuster and run out Sen. Harris’s clock. She wasn’t having it. When she turned up the heat, Sessions sought help. Not from a red phone or the Bat signal but from the most powerful source of protection—his White male privilege lifeline: Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the committee, and Sen. McCain, who was there as an ex officio member. They swept in to interrupt Sen. Harris and demand that she pull back.
Being shut up and shut down by men is something women, not least of whom, Black women, have unfortunately become accustomed to: at home, at work, in the C-suite, the boardroom, academic spaces—basically every space in our lives. Men reflexively shush, diminish, ignore, and shut down anything we have to say or contribute in the best of times. But the stakes are so much higher in this case, because here we have a strong, brilliant, powerful, competent Black woman setting out to expose the lies and betrayal of a White man in power, a man who may have colluded with a hostile government and a traitorous president.
And for Sessions and his cohort, protecting his White male fragility takes precedent over the quest for truthful answers. Interrupting Sen. Harris, along with blaming and criminalizing her are part of process of protecting whiteness. So is the not so-subtle effort to paint her as an angry and hysterical woman, because nothing intimidates an old White shriveling ball sac like a smart Black woman who can reveal the truth of who he is. Since the election, we’ve been watching the strongest women emerge as the voices of the resistance from within the political system, among them former Attorney General Sally Yates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Maxine Waters.
How ironic that Sen. Harris—whose demeanor is cool as a whole vat of cucumbers—is being called “hysterical” by a bunch of hysterical, cowering fools. The mere image of this juxtaposition of a very calm, even-tempered woman posing questions to a man panicking because he doesn’t want to answer them—he can’t answer them without incriminating himself—and then blaming her for making him nervous … Their attempt to discredit her represents the sexist garbage they always throw at women threatening to expose the fault lines in their game.
For Sessions to say that Sen. Harris made him “nervous” takes this pathetic dance to a whole new level. Recall the time FOX News host Bill O’Reilly said he couldn’t hear what Rep. Waters was saying on the House floor in late March. “I didn’t hear a word she said,” said O’Reilly. “I was looking at the James Brown wig. If we have a picture of James, it’s the same wig.” O’Reilly was predictably slammed on social media for his racist-sexist insult of the California congresswoman, who has unapologetically been calling for Trump’s impeachment from the beginning.
Never mind Sessions’s power; never mind his whiteness; never mind the history of the FBI and its destructiveness; never mind the potential of a presidential pardon: That nervousness of which the Attorney General speaks is symbolic of a broader angst among many White Americans.
Nervousness about what happens when White male dominance is challenged.
Nervousness when White mediocrity is made visible.
Nervousness in the face of racial diversity.
And that’s why McCain and others had to gavel and silence Harris. It’s hard not to see McCain's intervention as evidence that White men stick together to protect themselves from women and people of color. Burr and McCain attempted to intimidate Sen. Harris, silence her, put her in “her place.”
You’ll notice they didn’t give the same treatment to other Democratic senators—white male senators like Sen. Angus King. It’s fine if they want to be rough with Sessions, make him look like a foot, because the sight of a White man questioning another White man doesn’t undermine the social order of power and authority. But to have Sen. Harris sticking it to him does, and they can’t bear it.
Let us not forget—and how can we?—Sessions’s long racist résumé. So when he tries to play the “nervous” card, we know the codes: When a Black woman is pressing him with appropriate questions, he won’t deign to receive her questions in a professional manner. Instead, he plays games and assumes the victim mode, suggesting that she is a threatening angry Black woman, even though there is nothing to suggest she is anything but rational, in what she asks and how she is asking it. But Sessions, in enlisting his white male colleagues’ help, his good ole boys, is getting them to collude in a racist lie, to portray her as an antagonizing hostile aggressor, out to destroy White masculinity and White power with her evil questions. And so they need to shut her up.
They refuse to see Harris—and Waters (and more generally, Sen. Warren and former AG Yates)—as “peers,” as political equals. The inability to listen to her questions; the efforts to paint her as “angry,” as “disruptive” and “unprofessional” are all a holdover of the Mammy dynamic, where they expect—and demand—Black women to be loving and nurturing to them, catering to their every whim and deferring to them at all costs, but never revealing their own opinion or thoughts—their own humanity.
In these scenarios, the men appear aghast that “The Help” would dare speak to them in such a way, and have the audacity to not center their well-being above all. Their real message: “How dare a Black woman question me and my natural authority?” They can’t even fathom this inversion of authority, which triggers their bouts of Massa Flashback Syndrome.
They want to demand our invisibility and subservience, reminding Sen. Harris that, “You may be kind, you may be important, you may be smart, you may be quiet, you may follow every one of my rules and exceed all of my expectations and be twice or even three times as hardworking and effective, but you will still—always—be read and responded to as a loud, disruptive and inappropriate Black wench who doesn’t respect me or my rules enough to submit the way you’re supposed to.”
What we saw during that exchange between Sen. Harris and the good ole boys, was White fragility personified. You see, most White people live in environments where they are shielded from race-based stress. They’re not used to be challenged by people of color. And so when they are confronted, they get triggered, defensive, hostile, guilty, fearful.
It’s not hard to read these hearings in the context of an overwhelming fear of Black bodies, along with the paranoia of Sen. Harris’s clear authority as she refused to let Sessions filibuster through, taking up all of her time with his rambling non-answers. Viewed against the historical backdrop of anti-Black racism, it’s easy to see how low they’ll go when their White male dominance is challenged in any way—even by a Black person working strictly within the rules and policies of the machine that they created and control. It is no wonder they’re nervous: their undeserved power and unearned advantages are on life support.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris refused to play their game, to be quiet or subservient. She’s not going to cower or curtsy to their crusty egos. They might have tried to silence her in that space and time, but her voice and reach on social media ensure that Sessions, McCain, and their fragile White male brethren will be fighting hard and playing dirty to maintain their status quo.
Every time Harris or a Rep. Maxine Waters calls them to the carpet, we absorb a little of their empowerment. We gain the possibility of a new scenario—an inversion of the gender and racial hierarchy. Amid the predictable game playing, name-calling, labeling, and attempts to diminish her, even the smallest show of resistance can take root and bloom. As more women and women of color run for and are elected to office at all levels, we’ll keep watching and cheering as they refuse to be ignored. And we’ll keep cheering them on as we watch the old impending dinosaurs choke on their desiccated, undignified egos