Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s recent confirmation was a stark reminder that sexism and racism are both alive and well in 2022. She was interrupted, talked over, and questioned about issues and persons far outside of her personal and professional experiences. Her work was disparaged and attacked, and her character called into question. Throughout it all she remained calm, focused, and on point. She was under intense scrutiny, not because of her professional track record; it was due to being a Black woman. By disparaging her solely on the basis of gender and race, senators ironically showed their worst behavior while Judge Jackson responded with a calm, professional demeanor.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the Senate, said that she admired Judge Jackson’s grace during the hearings, despite the harsh questioning. She pointed out how Judge Jackson is imminently qualified, adding that much of what Judge Jackson experienced during her confirmation process felt all too familiar.
“There’s a word, and the word is called misogynoir,” she told Vox. “And that word describes the double whammy that women of color have to face: You’re vulnerable on the issue of gender, and you’re vulnerable on the issue of race.”
While senators continued their attacks, and simultaneously moaned about other recent nominees having been treated unfairly, Judge Jackson remained steadfast, and for the most part unshakable, not giving in to the hysteria, or preconceived judgements surrounding her. Legal scholars Madiba Dennie and Kate Kelly wrote that women are already stereotyped as emotional and unfit for leadership. “Black women in particular have to patiently overperform in order to combat racist tropes of the ‘angry Black woman’.”
Judge Jackson’s experience with sexism and racism were on global display, but she is not alone in her experiences. Women, especially Black women, across the country still deal with implicit and explicit bias and outright sexism and racism on a daily basis. How does this happen? Especially now, in 2022? Actually little has changed in this century. Leadership roles in both business and politics are still occupied heavily by men. Congress is still more than three-fourths male, and just 7% of Fortune 500 corporations are led by a female CEO.
Oddly enough, attitudes have changed about which gender can do the job. The General Social Survey at the University of Chicago reports that the number of Americans who think men are better suited than women for politics has decreased from 44% to just 13% in the past five decades, and today, only 4% of Americans say they won’t support a woman for president.
Leisa Meyer, a historian at the College of William and Mary, says, “Women aren’t only judged differently for the same behaviors; they’re also still thought of as more emotional, worse leaders, and less apt to make hard decisions.” Christian Science Monitor staff writer Noah Robertson writes that while many women hold similar gender stereotypes, those perceptions tend to be held most strongly by men.
Black women also have to deal with perceptions surrounding their race. While Judge Jackson may have been the first (and only) Black woman to be nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, many Black women in corporate America often find themselves as the first and/or “Only” in different organizational settings. According to Lean In’s State of Black Women in Corporate America report, in meetings and other common workplace scenarios, “54% of Black women are often the only or one of the only people of their race/ethnicity in the room. Black women having this ‘Only’ experience are significantly more likely than white women in the same situation to feel closely watched and to think that their actions reflect positively or negatively on other people like them.”
In addition, “40% of Black women say they need to provide more evidence of their competence, compared to 28% of white women and 14% of men. Black women are (also) more likely than other women to hear people express surprise when they demonstrate strong language skills or other abilities.”
Yet most Americans remain in the dark about this blatant racism. In fact, 53% are not aware of the pay gap between Black women and everyone else, although, on average, Black women are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. One Black woman described the added pressure by saying, “I feel like I have to represent the entire race. I need to come across as more than proficient, more than competent, more than capable. I have to be ‘on’ all the time. Because in the back of someone’s mind, they could be judging the entire race based on me.”
Black women have always been on the front lines for gender and racial equity, and now are also confronting anti-Black violence. It’s important to understand what Black women are up against, and end this undeserved bias and violence, and truly achieve equity for all. In order for that to happen, we have to work together. Period. Meyer contends that women overall, are less cohesive as a group. However, as Dr. Nancy writes in In This Together, that doesn’t have to be the case. There is so much we can achieve if we embrace our collective strength. Trudy Bourgeois writes that, “History teaches us that when women come together and support each other, we can change the world.” If these past couple of years (especially) have taught us anything, it is that it is definitely time to come together and support each other unconditionally, because without unity we can’t even stand up against a virus, much less a senator who keeps their job in spite of bad behavior. It is time for women (and men) of every color to come together as “us” and even include those who disparage our fitness to lead, lift everyone up and follow Judge Jackson’s example to calmly, steadfastly eliminate sexism and racism to truly create a better world.