Commentary

After Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed: When will Black women be enough?

April 8, 2022 7:00 am
Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 28: Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations on Capitol Hill, April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee is holding the hearing on pending judicial nominations. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images)

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson certainly deserved the confirmation of the Senate, which she received on Thursday, to become the next justice to join the U.S. Supreme Court. But many of us watched in complete disgust and anger at how President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was treated during her hearing. I had an emotional reaction to the day of questioning that I watched. (This was the day Sen.Ted Cruz asked her if she thought babies could be racist).

We all expected her to be treated terribly and attacked (she is a Black woman after all) but the way that it was done, felt so familiar to me personally. I’ve been in a position where unqualified white men talked down to me and I had to sit there poised, and restrained otherwise risk being the “Angry Black Woman”.

Black women across the country have felt the same attacks and condescension that Judge Jackson has faced these last two weeks. I admittedly didn’t watch every minute, but I saw enough. It’s important to note, that while we were watching this disgusting show play out in real time, thousands of similar interactions happen every day to Black women.

This is not a unique occurrence. The reason someone like Cruz has the audacity to behave the way he did on live national television is because that behavior  has been normalized for many people. In fact, there may be people who identify as progressives or Democrats who have treated Black women similarly and didn’t realize it.

I was talking to a friend of mine about how if white men need to learn basic arithmetic Black women have to do calculus in order to be “validated” on the same level as everyone else. I put “validated” in quotation marks because who is validating and using what standards? To assimilate in this world and to even survive, we are constantly calculating how our words, behavior, hair, clothes, tone etc will be perceived. I do a dozen of these calculations a day and I know I’m not the only one.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was able to throw a temper tantrum during his hearing and some people sympathized with his meltdown. Judge Jackson arguably faced a more disrespectful line of questioning than Kavanaugh, remained poised, and yet somehow is criticized more. Why is that?

You could be the most decorated, most experienced, most qualified person in the room but simply because you’re a Black woman, you somehow have to prove it. It feels like no matter what we do, we will always fall just shy of acceptance, of basic humanity and dignity, of celebration of our strength and accomplishments. I was so upset after watching the hearing, I was grateful to Sen. Cory Booker for giving Judge Jackson a moment to be a human, and to be seen as a full human being. What Cruz and others did was try to strip this incredibly qualified Black woman of her dignity and put her in what they view as  her place in society.

I think about “Respectability Politics” and how some of us are bombarded with messages from our own community members that if we just sit up straight, pull up our pants, say please and thank you, then we are saved from the ills of white supremacy. I believed it growing up. I thought I was  somehow protected from racism if I just went to college and worked hard. I remember when I started questioning this in my early years of college organizing. We had a lobby day as college students, and naturally we dug out the best business professional attire we had for our visit. I remember one of my friends chose not to bother. People criticized him and he said very clearly the words that constantly ring over in my head to this day: “No matter how I look, how I dress, I could dress like them but at the end of the day I am still a nigger in their eyes.” You can be the most qualified Black woman and these men who gladly uphold white supremacy, will still remind you of your status on national television. 

I mentioned earlier that regardless of political affiliation, people have likely caused a less famous Black woman the same level of discomfort we saw during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, it just wasn’t aired on live TV. That less well known Black woman  didn’t have op-eds and political pundits to come to her defense. She was a colleague who bit her tongue and dealt with the microaggression of the day. She sat in silence. She calculated if it was worth it to defend herself or let it go. She likely suffered in silence before deciding which friend had the emotional space to listen, without retraumatizing them with her story. 

I write this with certainty about what that everyday Black woman did, because I am her. She is also my friend. She’s the women who work at BLOC. She is my mentor. She’s my colleague who also runs an org in a different state. We all felt Judge Jackson’s facial expressions because we (Black women specifically — this is not an “All Lives Matter” moment)  are her. Black women deserve more than coming to our defense after harm has been committed. We need you to stop committing the harm. If you were shocked and appalled by Judge Jackson’s treatment, think of all the possible ways you may have contributed to a similar situation to a Black woman you know. No, this is not a moment that after your reflection, you cry to a Black woman and apologize. Quite frankly, it’s awkward and recenters the discussion to your feelings instead of your accountability. 

Not only do Black women deserve to be seen with basic dignity and respect, we need to be celebrated. With all the mental gymnastics we have to do, even on our worst days, we run circles around a lot of our colleagues. We’re tired of being celebrated for being resilient for how much harm we can withstand. We want to be celebrated for our accomplishments without having to prove ourselves every step of the way.

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Angela Lang
Angela Lang

Angela Lang is the Founder and Executive Director of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities) an organization dedicated to organizing and building political power in the African American Community. Prior to that she served in senior organizing roles for SEIU and For our Future.

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