The past three decades provide concrete examples of the norm and practice of disrespecting Black women in public spaces. In 1991, America witnessed the formidable grace of Professor Anita Hill’s response to coarse and voyeuristic questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ nomination proceedings. Thirteen years later, during the 9/11 hearings, the nation watched the hostile questioning of Dr. Condoleezza Rice, complete with impertinent interruptions by a nearly all-male, white commission. The eight-year reign of America’s first Black First Lady, Michelle Obama, included a deluge of racialized and gendered critiques of her “look”, her style of dress and her gender, by voters, members of the press and elected officials. And, our first Black Vice President, Kamala Harris, continues to endure attacks referencing her facial expressions, her extensive vocabulary and her wardrobe choices.
This abuse positions Black women between a rock and a hard place. If we express anger in response to racialized and gendered attacks, we risk reinforcing the trope of the “angry Black woman” and our complaints are dismissed as paranoia and hypersensitivity. If we survive the attacks visibly unscathed, our strength obscures the harm, justifies the behavior and invites continued abuse. The composure Judge Jackson showed was commendable, but it should not have been required.
Senator Cory Booker’s full-throated condemnation of the unprofessional and vulgar behavior of his colleagues and his effusive affirmation of Judge Jackson’s belongingness and superior qualifications provided some salve for the collective trauma Black women experienced last week. For millions of Black women watching, whose collective prayers steadied and lifted Judge Jackson during her marathon interview, we knew he was referencing micro- and macro-aggressions we’ve all endured.
As we watched Sen. Booker’s defense of Judge Jackson, we were reminded of the many passive and direct challenges to our competence, to the value of our contributions, to the salience of our ideas, to the value of our work, to our femininity and even to our very humanity over the course of our careers and lives. We also may have remembered the times when sympathetic-but-silent bystanders, could-be allies, decided not to intervene. Sen. Booker was talking about Judge Jackson, but he was speaking to all of us.
The dignity, knowledge of the law, and discipline Judge Jackson displayed at the judiciary proceedings confirm she is, as the American Bar Association determined, “well qualified” to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Jackson’s dignified demeanor shone a light on Republican senators’ public display of disrespect, which was orchestrated to undermine her extraordinary record and support for her nomination. They failed. But, their attempts to discredit the Black woman who is likely to grace this nation’s highest court as the next Supreme Court Justice revealed them to be completely out of order.
Tanya Washington Hicks is a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.