What Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearing Is Confirming for Me
This week, @JudgeKetanjiBrownJackson is sitting through 15+ hours of questioning (the System calls it a Confirmation Hearing) to be formally appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Since 1975, the average length of time from nomination to confirmation for a Supreme Court Justice is 68 days. When Biden suggested that his next nominee of the SCOTUS would be a Black woman, our favorite far right Senator — Ted Cruz — said that President Biden’s vow was “offensive” and “an insult to Black women.
I’ve been tuning in as much as I can this week, in between various meetings and also playing the hearing in the background while I’m doing my “thinking work”. I’ve been blowing it up on social media as much as I can as well. Last night, in trading texts with a great friend who is white, I finally recognized what it is about Judge Jackson’s confirmation that struck a chord.
The questioning of Judge Jackson by more than a handful of mediocre white men (they don’t deserve an acronym, but we’re going to call them MWM so we don’t waste more energy and keystrokes on them than we need to) was egregious, blood-boiling, incredulous-but-not-unbelievable, shameful, backwards, and downright disgusting. There are a handful of other words that can be used too, but I won’t put them out to the interwebs.
Trevor Noah brought levity. Thank goodness, always, for Trevor Noah. He also gave us straight talk. What he said was — while he appreciated that Judge Jackson was calm under intense and unwarranted scrutiny, he wished she showed a touch more frustration. Her stable and levelheaded non-emotional outward presentation only serves to emphasize that people can treat highly qualified people with such disrespect, and essentially expect them to absorb the undeserving drivel.
My good friend @SarahCrispin shared with me the book — Body Keeps Score…Right in front of our eyes, you could see the hatred being foisted on Judge Jackson’s body. As a Black Woman. And she just sits there and takes it. Without barely a grimace, a scowl, and certainly no eye-rolling, though she is entirely deserving to act in all of those ways. What we’re all collectively witnessing is Racism at its finest. Here is a person of color (who happens to be a radically qualified Judge) who has decided it is safer for her to suck it up (again!), and absorb all of this hatred, while privately dealing it with alone or in the company of trusted ones, later.
We all need to tune into the bright spots (Diane Feinstein, Cory Booker) to give us energy and the belief-in-the-damn-near-impossible for the long road ahead. It was nice of Judge Jackson to say that we’ve come a long way in her lifetime, one generation, but honestly — I think she was just trying to appease the mostly-white Senators. Without a blemish in the hearing, this is the most disappointing (yet intentional) thing Judge Jackson has uttered. And she did it to bow to the overtly racist Senators in the room, and to the millions of “not-racists” across America who are tuning in. It’s smart. Stroke their egos, they’ll never know. In fact the opposite, she’ll have made them feel good that her mere existence is evidence that we’ve come so far since the antebellum South’s systematic subjugation of a whole massive group of people — Black people.
And here’s why all of this is striking a chord, and why I’ve been so vocal that everyone needs to watch this hearing right now. With my friend @AnnyChopyak last night, I shared that watching this as been a sort of “secondary trauma” to me. I’m not the one being questioned, but I am a witness to it. And because this has overtly and covertly happened and happenS to me every single week of my whole life (minus baby years, which I cannot remember), I’m experiencing this in a very first-hand way. And yes, to those that accuse me of speaking in overly broad strokes and generalizations (which I am apt to do), I was also questioned in my youth. There, it was the Model Minority myth. Said all my teachers ever: “What do you mean you’re not good at math? All Asians are good at math!!” (I was terrible at math…)
So what can you do about this if you’re me? Here’s what I’m choosing to do:
- Be Me. Have my very existence be a radical act of anti-racism. Speak up. Speak when I’m spoken to. Speak even when I’m not asked to speak. (I’m not asked to speak all that much.) I spent a lot of years being quiet. It was easier not to be the mole sticking my head up in life’s Whack-a-Mole game. But what happened when I didn’t speak was this — I lost myself. Or maybe never knew who I even really was! Sound strange to you? Racism manifests is interesting ways.
- Challenge. When I speak up, I challenge all convention. That’s just how it works. No one ever expects the small Asian woman in a room to speak up. Research shows that working from home during the pandemic has benefitted people of color, and especially women of color. We can mostly avoid all of the covert “non-racists” at work, and also all of the thinly-veiled racism and micro aggressions. At work, I have to pretend to be big. What? Yes, you heard me right. I have to pretend to be bigger than I am. Because height matters a lot. We’ve all seen the studies that show that short people make significantly less salary than their taller counterparts? Is this because we have smaller brains and are therefore not as smart? Perhaps, but I think the commonly understood belief is that we’re all a product of biases. I have the trifecta — short x Asian x woman. If we were playing Limbo, some of those characteristics would help me win. But in the corporate environment, they’re a liability for me. I was chatting with @MistieBassBoyd yesterday. She’s this incredible 6'3'’ ex-WNBA basketball player who I have the pleasure of connecting with every so often. We only met during the pandemic, so we’ve never seen each other in person. She’s only ever seen me from torso on up. Yesterday, she guessed my height. “5'6'’?”, she posited. Wow, not bad. Guess I have been playin’ BIG. She gifted me with 4 important inches.
- Ask. Now, I always ask. I didn’t use to ask, but now I do. It’s important. While I’d love to be given (nice) things I didn’t ask for, that’s not how the world works. Or that’s never been how my life works. Now that I’ve found my voice, and know who I am and am 10x more confident (thank you @UPFRONT) than I was a year ago, it’s my responsibility to speak up for any number of colleagues, friends, mentees who are still disenfranchised. Here’s my latest example. At Nike, we leverage the expertise of a very renown, creative, unbelievable innovative Innovation consulting firm. They’re well regarded at Nike, and many of my colleagues have worked with this external agency for years. I was fortunate to be invited to a call with them and in the first .25s after joining the call, an unmistakeable trait struck me. It was me and my boss, and three white men. I hope you all hear me as I type this — I have absolutely nothing against white men. I better reiterate this for the MWM in the back. I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING AGAINST WHITE MEN. My favorite adult human being in the world is a white man. What I do have something against is unknowingly not anti-racist workplaces, systems, structures, norms. With 7 minutes left in our hour-long call (which really wow’d be by the way! These guys are legit!) I built up enough courage to ask four questions. (1) How many employees do you have? (2) What is the average tenure of your employees? (3) What percentage of your employees are Women? (4) How many people of color do you employ? The answers were: (a) 85, (b) 10 years, although the number is falling recently, (c )35–40%, and (d) 3 or 4, but a follow up email after a handcount said the actual number was 11. I didn’t ask these questions to be a bully. People who look like me are rarely effective bullies anyways. I wanted to prompt in others (who I deeply respect) a pause. An Equity pause. Do we think we’re doing the best work, the best innovation, the best thinking — when the majority of the population of the world is not represented?
So what can YOU do?
If you’re a white person, or a man (of any color)…you’re afforded privileges (so many!) just because of how you look. So if you are white or a man, I would suggest (strongly) that you have a responsibility to make it more equitable for everyone else. Here’s what you can do. Tracking with my above three actions…
- When people are being themselves, let them be themselves. Better yet, reach out actively and encourage those who are under-represented to be themselves. We will all look at you quizzically, wondering if you’re actually being real. Because everything in our lives has told us it is not safe to be ourselves.
- When people Challenge, put your ego in the backseat, and sit yourself back there with it. Give people a chance. And if they fail, give them another chance. And another one. And another one. You know all those chances you got simply for being white? Please consider passing it along.
- When people Ask, listen. Excavate your own biases. It can’t be easy to be a white person or man, being asked by the small Asian woman who you’ve decided to surround yourself with. Ask yourself why you’ve chosen to surround yourself with people who look and think like you. If your answer is that there aren’t enough qualified women, qualified women engineers, qualified women of color, I call bullshit. It might behoove you to examine what yardstick you’re using, who created the yardstick, and if the yardstick even accurately represents what you’d ideally be trying to measure and recruit for. I would challenge that the yardstick is woefully insufficient and has a million tiny little cracks running up it. It’s time to create a new unit of measurement.
- Create an environment where people feel it’s safe to be themselves, to speak up and to challenge. How do you do this? With any team you’re on, in every meeting you’re in, start with the words, “I don’t know.” It’s really simple. These words invite people to want to help you. When you know, or pretend to know, (and especially if you’re white and/or a man) — most people of color who grew up in this country and immigrants, will not dare “challenge” or even speak up, because they either assume or know you know best, or they personally have enough experiences of being humiliated, denigrated, shot down when they do speak up.
- Challenge “not-racist” conventions in everything you see, smell, hear, taste, experience. It’s everywhere, guys.
If you need examples, here’s how it manifests. When I go into the deli, the white man gets helped first, even if I’ve been in line longer. In a group of new parents mingling, I usually get box’d out. If you’ve played basketball, you know what this move is. Someone’s whole body stands between you and the hoop (my goal). I accompany my parents to almost every single doctor’s appointment they have, because my training as a public health scientist taught me that the American medical system is widely racist, or at the very least, “not, not racist”. I’ve seen/heard plenty of clinicians leave out information because they think my parents won’t get it, or that they won’t ask (it’s usually the latter, out of deference). When I’m driving particularly aggressively, road ragers will pull up alongside and pull at the corner of their eyes (presumably to imitate my beautiful almond-shaped eyes, and flip me the bird). When I’m traveling in new cities (I was in the Bay Area yesterday) or even crossing the street in my own city, I’m always on high alert. There is at least one Asian hate incident (slashed faces, pushed into oncoming trains, broad daylight murders — my cousin’s husband’s brother’s wife’s dad (no joke, in Chicago)) a day in the USA, for the last year since I’ve been paying attention. Follow @dionlimtv or @cefaan if you’re not seeing it, and want to be horrified by a lot of people’s reality. I don’t carry mace or pepper spray, but I do change my gait in an effort to appear bigger, when I’m nervous for my physical safety. I don’t want to appear meek, or weak. At work, I constantly have to prove to those around me that I’m capable. My white or male peers are usually given the benefit of the doubt and assumed they can handle the big task. I could go on…and on…and on. It permeates every aspect of my life. I don’t share any of the above to receive a pat on the back. Or any pity, sympathy, empathy.
Rather, I hope it’s a call to action for you, my fellow Anti-Racists to say more, do more, be more. Create the equitable world of the future, Today.