The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jackson had to keep her cool. These Black women could relate.


This story has been updated.

It was the sigh heard around the world for many Black women.

As President Biden’s pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Ketanji Brown Jackson has faced hours of questioning this week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many Republicans have pushed back against her historic nomination to the Supreme Court, challenging her work as a public defender, her sentencing on cases of child sex abuse and more.

But it was a line of questioning from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that evoked what several reports interpreted as Jackson’s first hints of exasperation.

On Tuesday, the senator brought up the school curriculum at Georgetown Day School, where the judge serves as a trustee. “It is filled and overflowing with critical race theory,” he said, singling out “Antiracist Baby,” a 2020 children’s book by Ibram X. Kendi.

“Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?" Cruz asked Jackson.

Ted Cruz gave the nation a lesson on misreading kids books

In response, Jackson let out a sigh and long pause before she chose her next words. She said critical race theory — an intellectual framework to examine systemic racism — is taught at the graduate- and law-school level and added that her praise for GDS came out of its history of integration and equality.

Social media quickly seized on the exchange, with many Black women interpreting Jackson’s reaction as a prime example of how they try to maintain composure in the face of aggression and hostility in the workplace.

“Every Black woman in a professional setting understands exactly what that moment was,” said Cynthia Ntini, 38, who added that it triggered memories of her experiences working for a management consulting firm. “We have to think, ‘Is it worth it to react to how I’m feeling inside? Is this person worth my career?’”

Ntini, who has been watching the hearings all week and tweeting commentary from her home in D.C., said she felt particularly triggered by Cruz’s remarks that suggested the real racism was against White people. “I grew up in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa,” she said. “To this day in South Africa, a lot of White people insist that they are the victims of reverse racism.”

Her own outrage to Cruz’s line of questioning, she said, made her more impressed by Jackson’s reaction while in the hot seat: “She is refuting them point by point and she is standing her ground. I think it’s resonating with the public.”

Trimiko Melancon, a professor of African American and African studies at Michigan State University, said this is something many other Black women exhibit in their lives: “Black women intentionally and almost intuitively have to calibrate their posture and their demeanor and their tone to mitigate and lessen prevailing stereotypes that are circulating in people’s minds.”

“All of this really stems from that ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype and trope that is so ubiquitous and pervasive,” Melancon added.

This characterization of Black women, she said, can raise concerns that they will face consequences in the workplace. And those worries aren’t unfounded, according to a study by the American Psychological Association.

The research, published last year, found that expressions of anger from Black women can lead to worse performance evaluations and assessments of leadership capability.

For prominent positions like Jackson’s, the scrutiny can be far more intense, said Melancon, and especially amid the gaze of social media. Since taking office, Vice President Harris has faced criticism from Republicans about her ability to serve as second-in-command, and national polls have reported a dip in her approval ratings.

In 2019, former first lady Michelle Obama told journalist Gayle King that she was stereotyped as an “angry Black woman who was emasculating her husband.”

“As I got more popular, that’s when people of all sides — Democrats and Republicans — tried to take me out by the knees,” Obama said, “and the best way to do it was to focus on the one thing people were afraid of: the strength of a Black woman.”

Senate Republicans spent parts of Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings questioning her about her views on race. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Opinion: Michelle Obama turned the ‘angry Black woman’ trope upside down

Women’s expression of emotion has always been something society seizes on to criticize, according to experts.

“Men have historically and contemporarily always been afforded a level of emotional expansion that women generally don’t have,” said Melancon, citing sports and politics as areas where men’s rage is widely accepted. “It’s not misread as aggression, it’s not deemed inappropriate, nor is it viewed within the lens of [unprofessionalism].”

Indeed, some users on social media noted the juxtaposition of Jackson’s hearing performance this week and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s in 2018 — a dramatic confirmation fight prompted by sexual misconduct allegations against him that surfaced at the height of the #MeToo movement. (Kavanaugh vehemently denied the allegations.)

At his hearing, Kavanaugh’s outbursts and emotional testimony worked in his favor, Melancon said: “In crying, [he showed] a certain level of masculine affability, like the lighter side of his personality.”

In recalling the media’s coverage of his testimony, Ntini said some “news articles were casting it in a positive way … that he’s passionately and vigorously defending himself instead of what it was: It was a tantrum by a man-child who wasn’t prepared to be scrutinized or to be held accountable.”

Many Republicans at Jackson’s hearings chided their Democratic colleagues for how they sparred with Kavanaugh at his hearings.

This week’s hearings have brought their own displays of performative behavior, said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb) on Wednesday. That came after Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called out Cruz after his allotted time for questions, and the exchange devolved into a shouting match. At the close of testimony later that day, Durbin applauded Jackson’s patience, dignity and grace in the face of what he called “offensive treatment” from Republican lawmakers.

Among Democrats at the hearings, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was applauded for delivering a passionate speech on Wednesday that moved Jackson to tears. “You have earned this spot,” Booker said. “You are worthy. You are a great American.”

It was the first time Jackson had shown that much emotion during the proceedings, and some Black women viewed it as a powerful moment of vulnerability amid a grueling two days of questioning.

“He saw Ketanji Brown Jackson being tore down and he took the opportunity to lift her up,” one user wrote on Twitter, “and she deserved to shed tears because she, like all Black women, is human.”

For Ntini, Booker “spoke to what all of us were feeling,” she said. “That she deserved to be there. That [support] isn’t something that a lot of Black women have in predominantly White, professional spaces.”

Black women are leaning into joy throughout Jackson’s hearings: ‘We need to celebrate this’

But Jackson demonstrated her poise in other ways beyond just her performance, said Melancon: “Her attire also intersects with that level of composure because when we’re talking about Black women, everything gets read.”

In the way Jackson precisely picked her words during the hearings, Melancon believes that same effort went into the colorful suit jackets she wore and the way she styled her hair. They’re subtle decisions, Melancon said, but nonetheless “they’re so symbolic and they’re powerful.”

The imagery was something Ntini said her 10-year-old son picked up on. Last month, as they watched the news of Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Ntini’s son said, “Mommy, she looks like you.”

The general public has largely supported Jackson’s ascent to the Supreme Court, and Ntini thinks her performance during the hearings brings her closer to that reality.

As she put it: “They’re really seeing her poise under immense pressure, her intellect, [and] the breadth of her legal knowledge.”

Find our gender and identity coverage here

Read the latest stories on our gender and identity page.

Also be sure to sign up for our free newsletter and follow us on Instagram.