When President Joe Biden committed to nominating a Black woman to the highest court of the United States, I was filled with a profound sense of joy and pride. A month later, he made good on his commitment by naming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will be the 116th Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Upon her nomination, those earlier feelings of elation were quelled with the sobering anticipation of the barrage of criticism that follows Black women who earn a position of power. That criticism is a familiar foe for Black women whose race and gender inevitably leads to presumptions they are unworthy of elevated positions or are a “diversity hire,” even Black women as accomplished as Judge Jackson.
In a book I recently read, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, Wilkerson likens racism in the United States to a caste system and specifically uses a long-running play analogy for the specific roles history dictates each of us be cast to play. Any variance from what is expected in the play cast may lead to heightened scrutiny, unfair treatment, ridicule, fear, adverse employment actions, and intimidation.
Judge Jackson has been cast for a role history dictates she cannot play. As a result, she will draw unfair criticism that is harsher and more ardent than White justices, and draw assumptions that, despite her qualifications, unreasonably question her abilities. Indeed, when she was named, we heard jokes about the pronunciation of “Ketanji,” questions about her score on the LSAT, and assertions that it is only her race, and not her extensive experience, that earned her a role on the Court.
What is happening with Judge Jackson on the big stage is what routinely happens to Black women when there is a call for diversity and we ascend to roles beyond what some consider are our “proper” place. Narrow and biased thinking causes the false binary that there can be diverse representation or high standards, but not both –as if Black women cannot possibly be qualified to meet high standards. This dangerously erroneous thinking stems from our being primed to associate certain roles with specific demographic groups, and too often leads to the spurious conclusion that any Black woman in too high a role can only be there because standards were lowered and for purposes of a diversity quota.
And the Black woman herself, internalizing what the writers of the play have written about her role, instinctively responds by driving herself to be twice as good, twice as productive, and push herself twice as hard to be seen as equal. Indeed, it is not unusual that Black women in high positions feel incessant pressure to prove their value and right to be in their role. They press themselves to work longer hours and take on excessive responsibilities and dreadful assignments to prove their credibility and disprove their cynics. While this may characterize grit, resilience, and unwavering work ethic, it does not come without emotionally taxing stressors of consistently encountering unfair criticism and close monitoring.
While Judge Jackson’s nomination is cause for celebration, it also highlights the necessity to critically unpack how we see race and gender and how those two subordinate identities combine to cause double jeopardy for Black women. We must also address how Black women are impacted by precarious perceptions of the roles we can play. When people are skeptical because, in their limited and biased views, they believe someone is miscast, we must challenge them to ask themselves why. Our workplaces should be filled with people who are curious and are willing to sit with their discomfort and make efforts to interrogate and actively unlearn their bias. As we confront the root causes of our limited beliefs, we are better positioned to identify how those beliefs negatively impact the workplace. And we can reimagine roles that are not regulated by race and gender and do not punish well-deserving Black women for realizing the positions they rightfully obtain.
Photo Credit: Drew Angerer, Getty Images