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There was this funny-because-it’s-true meme making the rounds during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination hearings.
It read: “For overqualified women who have to remain calm, friendly, knowledgeable and professional in front of underqualified men … Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.”
For women — especially women of color, and most especially Black women — that’s too often not a joke. It’s a Zoom call on Monday, an email on Tuesday, a staff meeting on Wednesday — well, you get the picture. It’s exhausting.
And so, watching this supremely qualified, supremely unflappable woman this week was like watching a dance that we women are all familiar with, even if some of us have more experience doing this particular routine than others.
When I say that she looks unflappable, I’m referring to how she must appear to most people (read: men, and most especially white men). But for those of us who know what to look for, we see the tells. The look, the sigh, the pause, and most of all, the prayer to The Almighty God of Give Me Patience: “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain that …”
Jackson, who is poised to become the first Black woman on the high court, repeated some version of that sentence so often before responding to attacks by the odious Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee that it inspired even more memes. Her responses also put on full display the ever-evolving coping mechanisms women are forced to adopt in their fields. That breath, that beat — even if un- or underdetected — that’s taken before managing the ignorance, the interruptions, or as Sen. Ben Sasse colorfully put it: the “jackassery.”
Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, seemed to think that the cameras in the room were the reason grown folk, mostly men, acted up — and certainly, there was a lot of clownish theatrics. Gotta test out which dog whistles your QAnon trucker base will respond to and all that.
But, as the saying goes, this kind of behavior is a feature, not a bug. Studies found that female nominees to the high court are interrupted more often than other candidates, and female Supreme Court justices are interrupted more by male justices and advocates. If that point needed to be proven, it was reinforced again when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas interrupted Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — yet another example of how even when women are sitting at literally the same table as men, some men will still attempt to silence them.
I’m glad the cameras were there because they highlighted the behavior that often happens away from the public eye, making it easier to dismiss or minimize. (It can’t possibly be that bad, right?)
It also put something else into sharp focus — the profound power of being seen, and of seeing someone be seen.
“You have earned this spot. You are worthy,” Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, told Jackson after she endured relentless attacks by disingenuous Republican senators who seemed more interested in sound bites than answers. A committee vote is now set for April 4.
“Don’t worry, my sister. Don’t worry,” Booker continued. “God has got you. And how do I know that? Because you’re here, and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat.”
Sen. Alex Padilla certainly knew. “People of color, especially those who have the audacity to be the first, often have to work twice as hard to get half the respect,” the Democrat from California said in another emotional moment.
A lot was made of the stirring words that brought Jackson and many of us to tears. But there was also a lesson in those moments, and it was this: There are a million different ways for us to support people who are being silenced or put down. It can be as simple as a moment, a gesture, or even one single word.
And that’s why, despite all of the tears that I shed during Jackson’s hearing, the real ugly cry came when the judge told the story of walking around Harvard University, feeling as if she didn’t belong. Another Black woman who she did not know passed by and they locked eyes.
“Persevere,” Jackson said the woman told her.
The reality is that most of us won’t ever be seen or supported on a national stage like Jackson was. Instead, we will feel support more often in those private, quieter moments like the one Jackson described long before she became a Supreme Court nominee. And those moments can be even more powerful and lasting.
I’ll tell you why I think that. Early in my reporting career, I was reassigned to a new editor, a white man who had a reputation as a nice guy. I was stunned when, by way of introduction, he suggested that my success — I had won several internal awards that year — had made me overconfident, as if I hadn’t worked for and earned the recognition. At the very least, he said, my stories were several inches too long. On that point, he might have been correct. (Self-deprecating humor; another coping mechanism.)
I don’t know if he considered or even cared about the impact of his words. But they burrowed deep under my skin and got into my head and affected me for longer than I care to admit.
I tried to hide it, but maybe that insecurity and self-doubt were obvious to others, because one night while leaving a dinner party, the host’s husband — incidentally, another white man — said goodbye and added this: “Keep writing.”
That’s it. Two words helped pierce the fog of uncertainty I had been dragging around for months. Two words and a weight was suddenly lifted.
Even today, when I find myself in situations where I’m feeling unseen or unvalued, when my work is being questioned or erased, it’s often those words that center me, that remind me of who I am and what I’m meant to do.
Keep writing — my own small way of uplifting people and amplifying voices that are more than worthy of being seen and heard.
This content was originally published here.