Only a few hours apart on Tuesday, two black women were confronted by white, male public figures in exchanges that many viewed as demeaning and disparaging.
First, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday seemed to criticize Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) because of her appearance — comparing her hair to a “James Brown wig,” for which he later apologized.
And in a press briefing later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told veteran reporter April Ryan to “Please, stop shaking your head again.”
Their words provoked angry reactions on Twitter and made headlines on cable news shows. But to many women, the comments were not all that surprising.
One of these women was Hillary Clinton. In a speech Tuesday afternoon, Clinton spoke of everyday sexism and structural barriers that are sometimes hard to spot but unmistakably present.
“Just look at all that’s happened in the last two days to women who were simply doing their jobs,” she said in her remarks at the Professional BusinessWomen of California conference in downtown San Francisco. She spoke of Ryan being “patronized” and cut off while asking a question. And she mentioned Waters, who “was taunted with a racist joke about her hair.”
“Too many women, especially women of color, have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride,” Clinton said. “But why should we have to. And any woman who thinks this couldn’t be directed at her is living in a dream world.”
Ryan arrived home later that day to hear the news from her daughters: “Did you see Hillary Clinton?” they asked.
“And I was like ‘no,’ and I saw it and I couldn’t believe it,” Ryan said, speaking on CNN. “I was shocked.” She later tweeted: “Preach @HillaryClinton!!!”
Black women across social media sounded off in support of Ryan and Waters, sharing their own experiences in the workplace. Brittany Packnett urged women to use the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork
“This happens to black women everyday at work,” Packnett tweeted. “Share your Maxine and April moments, so people don’t think this is rare.”
“Today, we were told a Black woman’s hair matters more than her voice, and our choices are under the control of others,” she added on Twitter.
One of the most popular tweets came from Waters herself, who shared the same words she spoke on MSNBC: “I am a strong black woman. I cannot be intimidated.”
“I’d like to say to women out there everywhere,” she added on MSNBC. “Be who you are, do what you do and let us get on with discussing the real issues of this country.”
As for Ryan, “This is just par for the course, unfortunately,” she told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. “But I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”
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