interview

Just Try and Silence Symone Sanders

“People have been telling me to shut up my entire life, and I just can’t. And I won’t.”

If the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, in late January were a color, they would be a pasty beige. Nondescript strip malls, clusters of architecturally blah homes, and scarcely populated roads — all dusted with a graying heap of snow. It was amid this uninspiring backdrop in 2016 that I first met Symone Sanders, then the spokeswoman for the Bernie Sanders (no relation) presidential campaign. She emerged in their headquarters seeming very unlike your standard-issue campaign flack, which is to say she was honest and helpful and didn’t make me feel queasy — plus, she had a buzz cut and was wearing a fuzzy sweater the color of Key-lime pie. Of course, nobody knew then how the election would conclude, but anyone who came into contact with Sanders could’ve predicted that regardless of the political climate, she was headed for cable-TV stardom: She’s young (now 27) and intelligent and beautiful and manages to convey complex ideas in a cool, conversational way that translates well onscreen. After Bernie lost the nomination and Hillary lost the general, Sanders prevailed as a CNN contributor who elevates each conversation she’s a part of, sticks to the facts, and refuses to be stepped on. She is, in other words, as far away from Jeffrey Lord as one could possibly be.

When she argues her point, she does so with a clarity that’s unusual among the screeching pundit class. And when she’s disrespected on the air — as when Ken Cuccinelli, the president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, recently told her to “shut up” on CNN — she stands up for herself with a dignified roar. “Pardon me, sir!” she told him. “You don’t get to tell me to shut up on national television. I’m sorry, under no circumstances do you get to speak to me in that manner. You should exhibit some decorum and understand that you are trying to defend and excuse white supremacists on this program, and under no circumstances will I sit by while that happens — so you can shut up.” She’s a progressive operative, but she’s not dogmatic. What she says never feels like spin, it just feels like what she truly thinks in the moment. That’s probably why she’s so effective, and so popular. On Twitter, she offers history lessons about systemic racism in America to her 80,000 followers. On Instagram, where she’s as likely to share a flower crown portrait or a sun-kissed picture with a dolphin as she is to honor a victim of police brutality, she has nearly 30,000. In the Donald Trump era, Sanders’s perspective — and the way in which she delivers it on any medium — is especially urgent. I caught up with her last week, following the violence in Charlottesville and the president’s repeated failure to address it appropriately.

You made news a few times this week, but let’s start with the debate you had with Paris Dennard, a Trump supporter, on CNN, about whether or not the president is actually racist. You said you don’t know what’s in his heart. I was wondering, do you feel like it’s productive to have an argument like that?
I’ve caught a lot of flak for not actually saying, “Donald Trump is a racist.” And the reason I wasn’t just ready to just up and call the president a racist is because I think that there’s a few horrible, horrible things you can say about somebody and calling someone a racist is one of them. And so I am not one to just throw around the ‘R-word.’ If I’m calling somebody racist, I absolutely believe that they are. I think Donald Trump is a white-supremacist sympathizer, but I’ve never actually thought he was a racist. I think he’s somebody that just understands how race works and how it plays to his advantage.

I don’t know. It’s an interesting conversation to have had in front of America. I absolutely think these are the kind of conversations we should be having. Because when we don’t talk about it, and then “shit happens,” everyone is shocked and surprised. People are like, “How could this happen? How could we get here?” And some of us are like, “We tried to tell y’all this was festering.” So I am never shy about having a conversation about it. (Following our conversation, Sanders called me to say that after thinking about it more, and reassessing the president’s response to Charlottesville, in which he expressed support for the objectives of the protesters, she changed her mind — she does believe the president is a white supremacist. She appeared on Don Lemon’s CNN program shortly after we hung up the phone, where she discussed her thoughts in depth.)

This is something I struggle with with Trump a lot, because I just think, Does it really matter if, in his heart, he’s a racist if he surrounds himself with people who have racist ideas, or if he’s trying to enforce policies that are, at their core, racially discriminatory?
Hm. Well, I guess no. Because I guess if in practice you are acting as a racist, what you’re doing is still damaging. First of all, I think words matter, and the words of the president of the United States can start a war, can launch nukes or can bring peace. But I also think actions matter, too, and even if Donald Trump hadn’t stood up at the podium and said all of those nasty, stupid, and just crazy things that he did say [after Charlottesville], his administration has still put the wheels in motion to ‘take our country back.’ That was happening long before this week.

While we’re on the subject — you appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher the week after he said the N-word. Did you ever consider pulling out of the show?
I never considered pulling out of the show. When it happened, I was like, Well, this makes my appearance a little bit more interesting. When someone says something that is inflammatory and then doesn’t even understand why, such as Bill Maher, I think we have to talk about it. I thought my presence there was really important, and I wanted to make sure that when we came to that portion of the show, I spoke from the perspective of black women. Because I think that perspective was getting lost in that conversation. I’m never gonna shy away from a conversation if the other party is willing to be communicative. That’s just unproductive.

Broadly, then, how do you see your role on television in this era, when there’s a good chance the president may be watching?
My objective when I go to the studio is to keep the bar high and substantive. I want to make sure that I’m actual and factual. I’m also conscious of the fact that there are people who are watching television at home who have never met a person of color, let alone a bald black woman — literally, they haven’t. What people think about people of color and black people, they get from television. And I’m always conscious of that when I go on TV. And I’m probably conscious of that in a way that maybe some of my non-melanated colleagues are not. Like, they don’t think that when they go on television, someone is gonna judge all white women by what they say. But I know that when I go on TV, someone is going to, on some level, judge all black people, or at least black women, off of what I say.

And it’s not fair and it’s not right, but currently that’s how it is. So I don’t come thinking that I’m trying to “bring the real,” if you will. But I want to make sure that I’m accurately representing the views of young Democrats, of millennials across the board, people that don’t even identify as Democrats but they care about these issues, of black women, of folks from the Midwest who are not white. Like, you would think that, if you watch the news, middle America is only white people. And that’s not true. So I bring all of these different things to the table, but I also bring the perspective of someone who has worked 15 different campaigns and spent almost a year entrenched in trade policy.

You have this sort of sunny, light-on-your-feet way of broaching any topic, but you’re also forced to defend yourself a lot because of the way people — like Cuccinelli — speak to you.
I have to, yeah. I have to stand up for myself. I have to be able to be funny, and witty, and quick on my feet. Because if I’m not, someone’s going to say I don’t actually deserve to be here. Someone will suggest that I’m not ready, and I absolutely believe I am. I absolutely believe I deserve to be here. I remember [when the campaign finished] I talked to a lot of different agents, and people told me I was not palatablefor cable television.

Palatable?
Palatable. I don’t know if it was because I’m too brown, if I needed more hair, or if I just needed less weight. I’m not sure what about me wasn’t palatable enough for cable television, but folks actually said that to me. There are people who knew me from the campaign and even from my past political experience who told me that no one would ever pay me to talk on their behalf again after Bernie, that I’m not that good on television. But then there were people like [Bernie’s chief strategist] Tad Devine, who was super encouraging and told me right out the gate, “You’re good. You deserve to be out here just as much as anybody else.” So that is the vantage point through which I come to this work. I am representative of a lot of people in America, but we’re not represented on television.

There are so many idiots on television — to suggest that someone who actually knows what they’re talking about can’t exist among them is outrageous on so many levels.
There was one time I was sitting on a big panel. We were doing special coverage for one of the hearings. And I was sitting on a panel with one of my Republican commentator colleagues, and he’s making a point that is crazy, and I tried to interject because that is what you do. I don’t know who these people are that think I’m just supposed to sit on television, uninterrupted, for seven minutes while you give a soliloquy. I’m not doing that. No one else is doing it. That’s not how this works. But he’s making a point, and I waited, and I interjected because it was so egregious, and he put his hand up in my face. And I was so — I was embarrassed. I was also embarrassed when the gentleman told me to shut up. Those are things that I think happen because folks are not used to seeing people that look like me on quote-unquote “equal footing” as them, on a panel, on television.

You were embarrassed for yourself or for him?
I was a little bit embarrassed. I said this to someone else recently, and they were like, Why would you be embarrassed? I’m like, because no one is talking to anyone else in that manner. Because, at some level, they actually believe that what they’re doing is justified. That it is okay for them to talk to me that way, to put their hand in my face, to attempt to shut me up. It’s embarrassing. But I never back down from a challenge. And people have been telling me to shut up my entire life, and I just can’t. And I won’t.

Well, for whatever my opinion is worth, I think it was embarrassing for him.
Oh yeah. He called me afterwards and apologized, so he clearly was regretting it. And I took the call, and it was a short call. My mother and my father, they raised me well, and so I said, Thank you and I do appreciate the sincere phone call, but I was disrespected on television. And so you do not get to offend me in public and then apologize to me in private.

Right.
That’s not how this works. I’ve been on a number of different segments, even before I [worked for] CNN, where sometimes the panel gets out of hand, the interview gets out of hand, and someone says something that is personally offensive, and they won’t apologize on air. They don’t give a sincere apology. But afterwards, they’ll give you a phone call or they’ll come see you in the green room and they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I was just sparring with you.” I’m not here to be dismissed nor disrespected. And so that is why I take my on-air presence very, very seriously because, again, there are lots of people watching who have never interacted with a person of color before. That’s just factual. It is. And I don’t want them to think that that’s okay. There are also little girls watching that look like me, and little girls that don’t look like me but that are being told that because they’re little girls they can’t do x, y, and z. And who may think that, because they are little girls and will one day be young women and women, that this is just how men talk to you. Nobody talks to me like that.

Would you want to host your own show?
Oh my god, yeah. You know what? I have a necklace that I wear sometimes that says “Donna Burns.” And Donna Burns is my on-air personality. I made it up when I was, like, 8 years old. I used to pretend to be a television reporter, my mother says. And one day I just picked up a pencil and said, “This is Donna Burns reporting live.” And so I think that folks who know me think it’s really, really funny that now I don’t have to pretend to be Donna Burns because I am Symone Sanders.

Part of being Symone Sanders is dressing better than the average pundit. I find it challenging to dress for TV; how do you approach it?
In summertime, I’m partial to a little off-the-shoulder top, and a ruffle. But I know off-the-shoulder tops, and maybe ruffles, aren’t necessarily appropriate for national television. So I love big, bright colors, and I love a good red lip. And so you’ll often see me wearing a bright, red lip or a purple lipstick, because I think it’s important to have fun. I like fashion and I want to be fashionable, so the dresses that I wear on TV are dresses that I would wear in regular life. Like, I wanna be cute and trendy. I’ve got on a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress today that has a little print on it that’s a V-neck, and I’m going on CNN International later.

I love the one that you were wearing last week, sort of the light blue trim.
Yes! Like, who says you have to sit on television in a black jacket and a blue suit? I’m not doing that. I don’t even wear suits. When I first moved here, when I had my first internship in D.C., they told me “black, blue, gray. That’s what people wear.”

Going back to what you said earlier, about people dismissing your optimism as a function of your youth: Can you look at the president’s statements in the wake of Charlottesville and feel any optimism at all?
Donald Trump does not make me optimistic at all. At all. But I am optimistic, and maybe it’s because I’m one of those millennials that feels like we can change the world, because I absolutely believe that we can. And I know so many people across the world, globally, who are actively working in their communities on a large scale and even on a small, really intricate community level, and are creating change and making a difference. And I think we need to give space and platforms to those people. Young people are going to save the world. I think we’re going to be okay if some of our seasoned individuals move over and give space to some of these young people. Like, literally. We’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna make it.

What about running for office?
One day I think I will run for office. Because I do believe more young people, more people of color, need to put their names on the ballot. And when we say run for office, it’s not just president, governor, United States Senate, congressman, or mayor. Like, there are county commissioners. There’s city council folks. There’s state legislators, there’s secretaries of state. There are all these different positions. School boards. There’s all these different things that people can run for. And, yeah, one day I would like to run for office. I think I have something to offer, and I want more young women to run for office. I’m on the advisory board for this new organization called Rise to Run. And it’s all about getting young women, like, high-school-aged, and even some collegiate women, engaged and involved in the political process and thinking about running for office.

When you look back on the Sanders campaign, do you have any regrets?
Absolutely. I mean, I think hindsight is 20/20. And a couple of us have all said this in different ways, but we did not play in the southern states. One of my personal regrets is that we let the conversation about the economy get away from us. And it became painted as though, because the basis of Senator Sanders’s message was we lived in a rigged economy kept in place by a system of corrupt campaign finance, that that was a message that didn’t speak to people of color. And I think that’s incorrect. Because jobs is an everybody issue. So, yeah. I think if we had a do-over, there would definitely be some things that we did differently. But I am absolutely proud of the work we did. I’m proud to have been a part of the team, and I am proud to have been able to step in where I could and help make a difference. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, because it helped shape who I am right now.

Within this context, since Charlottesville especially, there’s been some discussion about white people who think that they’re helping but aren’t. Like, feminists trying to make this about sexism instead of racism, for instance. How do you view that?Everyone needs to learn and adopt the concept of intentional intersectionality. And we have to incorporate intentional intersectionality into our everyday conversations, into our everyday lives, and into our advocacy platforms. Because we cannot afford to leave somebody behind. White women cannot afford, if they really do care about the future of the republic and the future of our democracy, to not speak up at this moment. If you care about all women, that includes black women. That includes Muslim women. That includes Latina women. That includes Asian-American, Korean-American, Native American women. And we — it is really, it is dangerous for some of us in these times. It’s absolutely dangerous. Heather Heyer lost her life for being an ally.

Just Try and Silence Symone Sanders