Opinion: Nomination hearings showed Black women’s dignity amid supreme disrespect

Why are Black women expected to go high, while white men are excused for going low?

Black women experienced collective trauma last week, as we witnessed our sister in law, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, respond with assurance and grace to a barrage of insults and base behavior unbecoming of the Supreme Court nomination process. Judge Jackson’s extraordinarily measured response stood in stark contrast to savage attacks by several senators whose crude conduct tarnished the integrity of the proceedings. Judge Jackson should not have had to endure the disrespect on full display at her confirmation hearing, and Black women shared the trauma of every expression of it.

The only signs of exasperation by Judge Jackson were an occasional raised single eyebrow, and a piercing pause and sigh before delivering a patient answer to ridiculous questions like “can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’”? Many Black women watching shouted at their television and computer screens what Judge Jackson could not: “How dare these Republican senators treat a Black woman judge who checks all the boxes (and then some) with such contempt.”

This was not Judge Jackson’s first time before the Judiciary Committee, having appeared before the panel on three other occasions. It also was not the first time this country witnessed the disrespectful treatment of Black women in public spaces. The inquisition of Black women is a strategic move by those who are threatened by high-achieving Black women like Judge Jackson who undermine the twin tenets of white supremacy — the primacy of whiteness and maleness. When Black women present in contexts from which we have been historically and intentionally excluded, contempt is used purposefully to remind us of and put us in “our place.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Tanya Washington Hicks

Credit: contributed

Tanya Washington Hicks

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Tanya Washington Hicks

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

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.