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Memo: Come Out and Say it: “Monster” is a Racist Slur

Changing Culture, Equity, Power, TIME'S UP 2020, We Have Her Back


Repeatedly after the first and only vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence last week, President Donald Trump attacked Senator Harris by referring to her as “this monster that was onstage with Mike Pence” — refusing to use her name or title. 

Let’s be clear: Senator Harris is a sitting senator and the first Black and South Asian woman vice presidential nominee of a major political party. And President Trump has historically used the term “monster” to malign:

  • ISIS terrorists
  • Dictators
  • Gang members
  • Mass shooters
  • Natural disasters

As this offensive term continues to draw political coverage, it is crucial that any and all reporting on his use of the term “monster” to refer to the Democratic vice presidential nominee is named for what it is: racist. 

President Trump has a distinct history of denigrating women, especially Black women, with sexist and racist insults. He has time and again deployed the racist “angry Black woman” trope against Senator Harris, calling her “nasty,” “mad,” and “mean” — insults that should be characterized as sexist and racist. But this latest attack is an escalation: “monster” goes a step further and altogether dehumanizes Senator Harris as someone — something — whose name is unspeakable.

Some of the damage has already been done: TIME’S UP Now and Edelman Data & Intelligence (DxI)’s recent analysis of media coverage around the VP announcements in 2016 and 2020 found that one quarter of coverage of Senator Harris referenced racial or sexist stereotypes. And no one has contributed more to these biased narratives against Senator Harris than President Trump:

  • Just hours after she was announced as the VP nominee, President Trump characterized Senator Harris as “extraordinarily nasty.” “Nasty” then emerged as the media’s most frequently used word to describe Senator Harris, trailing even the word “historic.” 
  • President Trump’s statements about Senator Harris eclipsed all other commentary, comprising 13 percent of media coverage of Senator Harris in the two weeks following the VP announcement.

Yet again, President Trump’s racist and sexist name-calling has garnered widespread attention. A new analysis by DxI found that in the first 24 hours, the offensive term “monster” statement got even more media attention than President Trump’s previous attacks:

  • Coverage of President Trump’s deeply-offensive “monster” statement appeared in 1.4K articles and Twitter posts, earning 863.5K engagements and a potential reach of 14.2 billion.  
  • Fourteen percent of online news coverage of Senator Harris referenced this attack, compared to 8 percent of coverage that reported on President Trump’s use of “nasty” to describe Senator Harris.
  • But of deep concern is the fact that the so many in the news media failed to call out the racist and sexist overtones of President Trump’s use of the word “monster” in relation to Senator Harris — only 23 percent included a discussion of its problematic implications. For comparison’s sake, nearly one-third of online news coverage (31 percent) of his use of the adjective “nasty” featured a discussion of racism and sexism.

You are not simply a stenographer of events. Rather, when personal attacks steeped in sexist and racist stereotypes and tropes arise, you have a duty to contextualize them within our country’s — and in this case, our president’s — shameful history of racism and sexism. That’s why this “monster” label should never be used as a stand-alone descriptor divorced from this context. 

In a time of unprecedented spread of misinformation and an election like no other, the news industry’s mandate to provide unbiased and accurate information becomes ever more urgent. Review TIME’S UP’s advice for newsrooms for ways to keep this kind of gendered racism out of your reporting — and always feel free to reach out to us if we can be a resource.


TIME'S UP Now

TIME’S UP™ Now is the nonpartisan and not-for-profit advocacy arm of TIME’S UP. We advocate for safe, fair, and dignified work for all in the public and private sectors, calling for an end to harassment and other related forms of discrimination on the job. And we fight to rebuild the systems that have taken away women’s power for far too long. TIME’S UP Now is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization.