What I wouldn’t give to have been a member of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s group chat with her girlfriends last week. I’m sure at some point someone exclaimed: “These mother…” And at least once I envision KBJ responding, “Girrrl… he’s lucky I didn’t come across that table.”
If confirmed as an associate justice to the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson – currently a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – will be the first Black woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest court in its 150-year history. This is an undeniably historic moment many are excited to celebrate. But overt racism, sexism, and political opportunism cast a dark shadow over the proceedings as a few overzealous senators decided to – in the most absurd ways – leverage the moment to pander to conspiracy theorists and voters they hope to gain in upcoming elections.
They asked Judge Brown Jackson questions, then cut her off while she was speaking; they accused her of not telling the truth; they asked her to rate her faith, define womanhood and determine if babies could be racist; they “mansplained” the law to the magna cum laude Harvard College and cum laude Harvard law school graduate; and they attempted to diminish the fact that – among all current justices – she is among the most qualified.
For many professional Black women, this behavior is inarguably foul; but unfortunately, it is also very familiar. Equally as familiar is the painful task of swallowing your anger, frustration, and exasperation when faced with macroaggressions, microaggressions, and manipulation because you’re committed to keeping the bigger picture in mind – whether that bigger picture is a historic Supreme Court appointment or it’s the trajectory of your corporate career.
Since the hearings took place, I observed similarities in reactions among many of the Black women in my life – friends, family, clients, and my online community. We shake our heads, exchange that knowing raised eyebrow, share that we were disgusted by what we saw and, in some cases (including yours truly), admit that we couldn’t even watch the hearings in their entirety. As I thought about these conversations, I began to realize, that most of us weren’t just disgusted by this shared experience as we witnessed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson endure the slights I mentioned above. We were triggered.
In psychological terms, a trigger is defined as an external stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that reminds you of past trauma and that can affect your emotional state, often causing overwhelm or distress. Black women and women of color often don’t realize the traumatic effects of microaggressions and macroaggressions experienced repeatedly in the workplace as many of us strive to break through the concrete ceiling. We may think we’re handling it, or that we’re strong enough to “push through,” but emotionally and physically, we are suffering.
According to the CDC, due to prolonged stress, Black women have a life expectancy of three years less than their white counterparts. And a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information cites that Black women experience accelerated biological aging in response to repeated or prolonged adaptation to subjective and objective stressors, which makes us more susceptible to chronic illnesses and ailments such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. To survive, Black women have developed what’s known as “high-effort coping” in order to survive. This has been shown to put wear and tear on our biological systems, otherwise known as the allostatic load, and cause higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Still, we bite our tongues, declare “I got it” and press on. And listen, I understand. Sometimes you feel like that’s all you can do to make it through. But it’s important that you create space for yourself to transcend those negative emotions. Here are a few ideas for how to deal with and heal:
1. Allow yourself to be pissed off about the injustices — even if you hold it together in the moment. You might want to flip a table over and tell everybody in the meeting to go to hell, but that’s not advisable. Unfortunately, it’s likely they already think you’re the angry Black woman, so let’s not throw fuel on that fire. But once you’re in a safe space — your car, the gym, your therapist’s office, with understanding girlfriends, or with your sympathetic boo — go ahead and BE the angry black woman. Find a healthy way to release, whether that’s sharing the details of the circumstances and being honest about how it upset you, or that’s letting loose on a punching bag or in kickboxing class. What’s important is that you get that energy out of your body.
2. Utilize healthy ways to transcend your anger. In her article, “Why the Angry Black Woman Needs to B.R.E.A.T.H.E.” on Essence.com, breathwork expert Zee Clarke shares her framework for transcending your anger using mindfulness and breathwork techniques. “The simple act of breathing calms our nervous system when we feel like we are being attacked,” Zee says. “Having the tools to transcend these feelings may not only save your job, but it may also save your life.
3. Embrace support and lean on your team. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s parents, brother, husband, and daughters were there to support her throughout the hearings. Whether they did so by sitting tall and proud behind her, giving her a gentle kiss on the forehead or smiling at her with deep admiration as did her teenage daughter, Leila, captured in this now-famous image by NY Times photographer Sarabeth Maney, who is also a Black woman. Surround yourself with people who are there to remind you that yes, you’re a badass, sis, but you don’t have to do it all alone.
4. Feel the feels. Allow yourself to experience emotion when you’re moved. Crying or other expressions of your emotions do not make you weak, they make you human. This is especially important when something good happens. Our minds are wired to focus on the “bad” because of negativity bias – a concept psychologists say is part of our evolution to help us avoid danger. But don’t let that bias keep you from soaking up a moment of praise, acknowledgment, or celebration of you, your work, or how far you’ve come. When Senator Cory Booker took the mic (and took us to church), Judge KBJ let her tears fall as she let his words fill her up — as did many of the powerful women in the room, including Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Rep. Barbara Lee of California (pictured).
5. Don’t give up. Even if you decide the environment you’re in is too toxic and it’s time to move on, it’s okay to quit, but never give up. Microaggressions, racism, and sexism are used as tools of manipulation because they often work. They make it more difficult for us to steel ourselves against imposter syndrome, and they make us question our greatness. Don’t! As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson shared in her closing statement, she received this message of resilience from a stranger one evening while walking on the campus at Harvard during her freshman year. As a native of Florida and a public school kid, she was questioning if she belonged and whether she could make it at the school. She said: “A Black woman I did not know was passing me on the sidewalk, and she looked at me and I guess she knew how I was feeling. She leaned over as we crossed and she said: “Persevere.”
Elayne Fluker is the author of the book, Get Over ‘I Got It’: How to Stop Playing Superwoman, Get Support and Remember that Having It All Doesn’t Mean Doing it All Alone (HarperCollins Leadership). Through her workshops, keynote speaking and leadership development consulting for Fortune 500 companies and global organizations, Elayne shifts the mindsets of unapologetically ambitious women around the stigma of asking for support and teaches them to get over “I Got It” Syndrome and make “empowered asks” so they can stress less, thrive more and be fulfilled at work and in life. Learn more about Elayne at elaynefluker.com or text her at +1 917.809.6764