Dear Senator Harris,
Three years ago I had a teacher who believed that my choice to sit for the Pledge of Allegiance gave him permission to shame and humiliate me. For 45 minutes, I was interrogated about which country I would rather pledge allegiance to, told that white privilege did not exist, and given descriptions of war zones in which “women, men, and children are raped and killed.” At the end of the class, the teacher expressed his deep sadness that I was so upset, and forced me to tell him I would be okay. I was 14-years-old. I stayed silent the entire time, and I still regret it.
I watched the vice presidential debate on Wednesday night. As many people have commented, it was wildly different from the disastrous presidential debate that took place last week. It was the first national debate that I was old enough to understand that didn’t feature Donald Trump, so in some ways, it was the first national debate I really watched. While people might disagree, I enjoyed hearing your answers. I thought they were well argued, and coherent. Something I wasn’t expecting, though, was how difficult it would be to listen to Mike Pence’s statements. Yes, it was frustrating to hear someone spout beliefs that I do not agree with. But it felt like my struggle was deeper than that.
It was hard to watch another person in power use the same tactics that my teacher had. It was hard to watch Mike Pence use the story of Kayla Mueller to attempt to bash your campaign. My teacher used the story of the American flag being laid over the coffins of his military friends to shame me. It was hard to watch Mike Pence congratulate you on your historic nomination, tell you that you were “entitled to your own opinion,” and then accuse you of using false facts. My teacher told me he respected me and my right to my opinions. It didn’t stop him from humiliating me in front of my classmates while I openly cried. It was hard to watch Mike Pence repeatedly try to force you to answer his questions. My teacher demanded I tell him where my ancestors had immigrated from and whether I had Jewish lineage. It was hard to watch Mike Pence interrupt you and continuously attempt to speak over you. My teacher didn’t let me speak and I wasn’t brave enough to try.
President Trump is deeply frustrating to listen to because he so easily speaks the language of false claims. But for me, Mike Pence is almost harder to watch. He manipulates and exploits decency. He is practiced enough at appearing respectful and well-mannered that he can get away with abusing it. Maybe I am just a girl who has not gotten over a teacher disagreeing with her. Maybe I don’t understand what a cruel world politics can be. But I think it greatly cheapens the idea of respect and civility when people use them to plead decency while mistreating others.
Over the last few years, while trying to move past what my teacher did, one of the things that I have hit up against is the fact that I did not speak up. I sat in my chair and cried while my beliefs and my reputation were battered and used by my teacher. When news of the teacher’s resignation spread, one of the reasons he was leaving was said to be that he made a girl cry. My tears had been the defining feature of my first attempt at advocating what I believe in. I felt foolish and embarrassed. This was exactly how my teacher wanted me to feel, and it has taken me a long time to realize it.
— Kamala Harris
While I have come to accept how I reacted that day, I want to someday be able to defend myself and everything I stand- or sit- for with the dignity that you displayed on Wednesday. I can’t go back and change what I did, but I can hope that the next time my beliefs are at stake and my voice is being threatened, I will have the power to say, “I’m speaking.”