women must present

Posted March 31, 2022 by Chantelle Cade

"This is nothing new to Black women, but last week’s hearings reminded all of us and confirmed that, over the historical moment, Black women walk a careful path when it comes to how they express themselves in public, especially in the workplace or else they risk coming off angry and unprofessional."

Double Confirmation: What Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings Confirmed About the Careful Way Black Women Must Present Themselves in the Workplace.

Chantelle Cade 

Thursday, March 31

America witnessed a historical moment in watching Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings last week. Judge Jackson is the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court and the first to come this close to Supreme Court confirmation.[1] Yet, with this historical moment, America also witnessed a sinister thing, one that happens to Black women daily all over the country.[2] The doubts about her qualifications (despite her Harvard credentials), and the expectation of a poor reaction.[3] There’s no doubt that in the questioning of Judge Jackson that maybe some wanted her to say more. However, Jackson handled all her questions with patience and grace that many of us might have thought they did not deserve. In reality, what else could she do? The grace given to others to answer questions and talk in this manner is not often reserved for Black women, lest they fall into a stereotype that is too often promoted in America.[4]

Many of the questions had little to do with Jackson’s ability to make decisions as a Supreme Court Justice.[5]Unlike in a normal interview, where the questions are tailored to what the job entails, Judge Jackson was questioned about highly personal issues unrelated to her ability to do her job; for example, Sen. Lindsay Graham asked, “do you attend church regularly?” [6] Sen. Ted Cruz asked her what she thought of the children’s book “Antiracist Baby” and, in a somewhat condescending tone, followed with, “do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?” [7] Judge Jackson took a long pause and responded courteously.[8] Even after being constantly interrupted and talked over, sometimes even to the point of being unable to answer the questions, Judge Jackson kept her cool.[9]

This lies in stark contrast to Justice Kavanagh’s hearing, where he was asked questions about his sexual assault allegations.[10] Towards the end, he went before Congress to tell them how vilified he felt during the entire process, saying the “smears” were planned and that it was all “crazy stuff” and “nonsense.” [11] Further, Justice Barrett answered many questions at her hearing without inserting the word “respectfully.” [12] For Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has yet to be confirmed as of today, with senators such as Mitt Romney still undecided about his decision to confirm her,[13] where would be her room to say something about the way she had been questioned?

This is nothing new. Black women have always had to watch the way they come across and are perceived in the workplace.[14] Even when they are questioned, spoken to rudely, or slighted, they must watch their responses or risk being stereotyped or accused of aggression.[15] One study noted that “when Black women outwardly express anger at work, her leadership and potential are called into question.” [16] Black women are often stereotyped as being angry, hostile, and aggressive when standing up for themselves or even simply disagreeing respectfully on a controversial topic.[17] Black women that witnessed Jackson’s confirmation note that “every Black woman speaks that language.” [18] From the “respectfullys” to the restraint under disrespect, Jackson knew what she could and could not say and how she could and could not say it.

Prof. Jones, a scholar of “racial stereotyping and how it plays into the lives of African-American women[,]” notes that “Black women are not supposed to push back and when they do, they’re deemed to be domineering. Aggressive. Threatening. Loud.” [19] Even Michelle Obama was labeled as “the angry Black woman” early in Barack Obama’s first campaign.[20] This is nothing new to Black women, but last week’s hearings reminded all of us and confirmed that, over the historical moment, Black women walk a careful path when it comes to how they express themselves in public, especially in the workplace or else they risk coming off angry and unprofessional.

[1] Camila Laval, First Black Woman and First Public Defender Nominated to SCOTUS: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Find Law (Mar. 02, 2022, 2:11 PM).

[2] Patricia Mazzei et al., How Black Women Saw Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearing, N.Y. Times (March 25, 2022).

[3] Candice Norwood, Black women’s qualifications have long been questioned. Ketanji Brown Jackson’s allies were prepared, The 19th (March 14, 2022, 8:41 AM).

[4] Daphna Motro et al., The “Angry Black Woman” Stereotype at Work, Harvard Bus. Rev. (Jan. 31, 2022).

[5] See PBS News Hour, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings - Day 3, YouTube (Mar. 23, 2022).

[6] Alexander Bolton, Graham Gets Combative With Jackson: ‘What Faith Are You, by the Way?’, The Hill (Mar. 22, 2022, 12:25 PM).  

[7] Shannon Larson, Ted Cruz Criticized Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘Antiracist Baby.’ He May Have Just Propelled the Book to the Top of the Bestseller List., Bos. Globe (Mar. 26, 2022, 8:55 AM).

[8] Id.

[9] Janay Kingsberry, Jackson Had to Keep Her Cool. These Black Women Could Relate., Wash. Post (Mar. 24, 2022, 1:34 PM).

[10] AP Archive, Kavanaugh Angry, Chokes up During Testimony, YouTube (Oct. 2, 2018).

[11] Id.

[12] See PBS News Hour, WATCH: Highlights from Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing - Day 3, YouTube (Oct. 14, 2020).

[13] Clare Foran & Kasie Hunt, Romney Says He Hasn’t Reached a Decision Yet on Ketanji Brown Jackson Nomination, CNN, (Mar. 29, 2022, 10:13 AM).

[14] Motro et al., supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Mazzei et al, supra note 2.

[19] Ritu Prasad, Serena Williams and the Trope of the ‘Angry Black Woman’, BBC (Sept. 11, 2018).

[20] Michele L. Norris, Michelle Obama Turned The ‘Angry Black Woman Trope Upside Down, Wash. Post (Aug. 18, 2020).

Thursday, March 31, 2022