Can we go high if they go low?

We all remember the famous words of Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” But as two Women of Color watching elections in Providence while unpacking that phrase, we wonder, did Michelle ever have any other choice? Specifically, do Black women have the privilege of defending themselves against campaign season attacks without the risk of looking aggressive, or becoming a fatal casualty of the old angry Black woman trope? We think not.

The classic stereotype of the angry Black woman has always had the double effect of perpetuating both racism and sexism. And most often, it is used to discredit, or furthermore, demoralize and quiet Black women from using their voices and being heard. It is based around the concept that, ultimately, Black women should know their place and neither say too much, nor too often, and especially not to protect their humanity. Why else do we love to classify a Black woman as being loud and out of turn? Because no one wants us to gain traction in order to dismantle the ignorance that follows us wherever we go. When Michelle made that strong proclamation at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, she was speaking to responding with class to outright ugly and abhorrent generalizations made about folks. It was a reaction to the disgraceful dogma espoused by those in the political realm looking to tamp down and suppress society’s advancements. However, that doesn’t speak to how a Woman of Color must react to being marginalized and maligned by those seeking to replace or remove them from any dialogue in our country. And it definitely doesn’t speak to how no matter how harshly or negatively a Woman of Color is debased, she cannot respond as she will feed the bigoted monster that hides in plain sight of our communities. How can you go high if you can’t go anywhere to begin with?

This current election cycle is divisive. In Providence, the race for the title of the most progressive candidate has seen candidates malign Women of Color in the ugliest of ways: spreading misinformation through whisper campaigns, social media blasts and the creation of inaccurate, dog whistle Wikipedia pages. How is this any different than what right wing activists are doing to Women of Color nationwide? Stacey Abrams, the accomplished former House Minority Leader and first Black woman to run for Governor in Georgia is repeatedly slammed for her personal financial debt. Code word, Black women can’t manage money, but the reality is that working Americans as a whole are saddled with debt, and facing the reality of income inequality that more closely mirrors Abrams than her opponent. The takeaway for voters is a blatant indictment on Abrams’ character, and that’s the conversation that persists; yet Abrams must go high, for anything she says will be construed as evidence against her, casting her as too loud, too aggressive, and too angry should she come to her own defense. The same goes for Women of Color running in our capital city. As they run to upend the power structure that has marginalized them, their families, and their peers for generations, they are fighting battles of credibility from the outside, but most problematically, from the inside as well; from those who declare themselves as allies but aren’t quite ready to turn the reins of power over to those closest to the communities they strive to represent.

Throughout history we have seen how political advocacy has resulted in great strides towards a balance of power through both the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. These efforts have been led by the very same people experiencing the disadvantages of not having a vote and not having access to equal opportunities. As active residents today, who roll up our sleeves to get others involved in advocating for existing needs in our community, we’ve heard people say “I don’t do politics”, or “I’m not into politics because politics are dirty” over and again – there’s a stigma behind being civically engaged that has played a large part in the continuity of the systematic oppression we experience in our lives. We can’t afford to host elections that continue to move the goal post for us but we also can’t afford to disengage from politics whether it’s running for office, supporting someone who does, or thinking critically about leadership and where we will place our value and our vote because when we surrender our political will; we surrender our livelihood and the potential of our future generations.

Our communities deserve public servants who are invested in building our neighborhoods up, not tearing down their competition in their march toward public office. This election cycle has been tough, and we wonder how many voters have the same sour taste in their mouths watching certain candidates invest their time and energy in covertly tearing their opponents down instead of telling us how they are the best choice for those who count on them to protect our rights and systematically improve the quality of our lives. Candidates running for office who choose not to run a clean campaign are not looking at the cost of their actions, they distract us from our goal towards real progress and drag us further into the divide and conquer arena we are already in given our current political climate. These actions remove us from a state of true democracy. Furthermore, the cumulative damage that this divisiveness and desire to win does not help the communities in which they want to serve. Therefore, any of us who are People of Color and who live in these neighborhoods become further disenfranchised. We become pitted against our neighbors, with candidate signs staked into yards or in windows, shouting out whose side folks belong. It truly is an us versus them scenario and no one wins and everyone loses, no matter the outcome of any election.

As voters, it is up to us to hit pause. Take a minute to think about the level of hypocrisy that this scorched earth practice requires from those asking for our votes. If people running in the same ward want our votes based on the values of social justice, do those values apply to everyone except their opponents, their families and their allies? Campaigns designed to play on fears, leverage hateful rhetoric, and diminish the value of their opponents may be short-term stepping stones towards getting them closer to that seat that they desire or believe that they belong in (which isn’t for them to decide in the first place) but long-term, the cost of moving through the political landscape as if it’s a game where only dirty players can win, is harmful in ways we can’t even begin measure. Let us say no to this. Our challenge to candidates running for office across the State of Rhode Island is to tell us what you can bring to the table; not what your opponent can’t. We can figure that out on our own. Stop lowering the political morale and will of the people with negative propaganda about your opponents and the people that surround us. Don’t showcase our issues as a political platform. Stop the ugly tactics that put a muzzle on women who are already muzzled. Stop running to champion marginalized communities when your actions are perpetuating marginalization. Run on your own strengths and let the voters decide who is the strongest. Showcase your capacity to resolve and build. Tell us how you are invested in us; give us options to thrive not misery on which to dwell. Show us the path to success, not the road to failure. There is too much at stake in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns. We deserve more and we definitely deserve better.

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About Lesley Bunnell and Teresa Guaba 1 Article
Teresa Guaba is a life-long resident of Providence. As a first generation Latina, daughter to immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, she has dedicated herself to breaking down silos and bringing diverse residents together to take on systemic inequities that have impacted their lived experience. With a background in both business and cross-sector coalition building, Teresa has dedicated herself to organizing neighbors in the South Side and West End of Providence around housing as a social determinant of health through a unifying approach towards civic engagement in historically disenfranchised communities. Her goal is to perpetuate pride in the community of color and elevate resident voice to the highest levels of government in order to create systemic reforms that achieve an overall improved quality of life for all. Lesley Bunnell has been living with her 15 year old daughter, Fiona, in Providence for the past 13 years. She is a fundraiser and grant writer by trade and very active in social justice and the politics of her community. She is a powerlifter, occasionally plays bass in the band Cramptown Mayors, and enjoyed skating with the Providence Roller Derby under the moniker Rosa Sparks. She is currently training for a half marathon and is deeply regretting her decision. She and Fi live in the West End with a very enthusiastic and ridiculous four year-old pit bull named Bernie, and 2 cats: Mr Pibb and Zora, aka Kitty Smalls. Lesley can't drink iced coffee because she houses it too quickly and is obsessed with true crime podcasts. She was born in Oakland, CA and raised in Anchorage, Alaska.

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