How Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings Illustrate Why the Women of Color Leadership Circle is So Needed Today
Countless women of color watched Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and saw themselves — in all of the pride of finding oneself reflected on the national stage and the familiar frustration in how Judge Jackson was treated. Over days of testimony, Judge Jackson was interrupted and talked over and down to through, at times, coded language and lines of questioning that often mischaracterized her job performance. Often, senators’ questioning centered critical race theory and crime, a choice that doesn’t quite feel separate from Judge Jackson’s identity. Repeatedly, we watched Jackson explain herself exhaustively, with remarkable calm and composure in the face of outbursts from men.
Ketanji Brown Jackson has more years of experience on the judicial bench than four current Supreme Court justices had combined when they were confirmed, and she brings more trial court experience than any other judge in nearly a century. It’s not Jackson’s resume that was the basis for such treatment. The disrespect she endured from a largely white and male committee was a glaring example that no matter your accomplishments, your income bracket, your level of education, your notoriety, where you live or what you do, women of color are impacted by the same oppressive systems and the double-edged, intersectional sword of race and sex-based and discrimination.
Underneath Jackson’s treatment lies societal doubt about women of color’s inherent capability to succeed. This doubt impacts women of color in their personal and professional lives, and even those who share their racial identity are not necessarily immune from its grip.
The Personal Impact on Women Leaders
Jyoti Sinha founded the South Asian Worker’s Center in Boston. When she began her work just over four years ago, she faced skepticism from South Asian men in her field who told her that such work wasn’t for women — and that, even if it was, certainly it’d be better suited for someone more widely known, with an Ivy League education, perhaps more familiar with Boston’s political economy.
“‘How could she initiate a center?” Who is she? What caste does she belong to? What religious group? Oh, she’s upper caste. Could she be a right-winger? What’s her last name?’ These are the questions that were coming toward me,” Jyoti Sinha says.
“I have a few supportive South Asian men within the South Asian Workers’ Center team, but they’re very suspicious of my vested interest. ‘What is she aiming to do? Does she want to run for office? Does she want to get into some position? Is she running after tenure? Is she all in for her promotion?’ Nobody wanted to accept the fact that I’m looking for social change. I’m looking for respect for this community,” She added.
Sinha is also faculty at a university and noted that her way of building community, which created space for innovation that serves the unique needs of the migrant community the organization supports, wasn’t openly accepted by a few academic communities. Skeptics viewed her public sociology practices as soft, or unscientific.
Charline Alexandre-Joseph is a senior-level professional and explains that her leadership style differs from others she’s worked with, too. It’s more collaborative. She mentors youth and says that if the goal is to make sure tomorrow’s leaders are well equipped, she wants to teach others everything she knows, which, she shared, isn’t a popular idea.
Alexandre-Joseph also spoke to the ways that society’s doubt about women of color being capable creates increased scrutiny in the workplace.
“When we are in our leadership roles or in our organizations, no matter which ones they are, there’s always a sharper eye on ‘what is that brown woman is doing? And why is she at the table? She doesn’t do it the way that the rest of us do it, so let’s keep our eye on her’ — and in a judging way, not in a loving, supportive or constructive way,” Alexandre-Joseph shared.
Over time, this can take a toll, Alexandre-Joseph says. “You start to believe, “am I enough because I do things differently?”
For Alexandre-Joseph, that societal doubt showed up within herself and her family. Alexandre-Joseph is Haitian-American and described how the work she does strays from her community’s ideas of success, which she says are very specific. Get a job — like a doctor, lawyer, or engineer — and earn a stable income. When she chose to work in the nonprofit sector, her family didn’t understand.
“There’s a bit of being raised and thinking that success looks a very certain way because mainstream, white dominant culture is only going to respect you as a Black professional if they can ‘understand you’ and so you walk around with that. I walk around with that a lot in my life and in my career.” Alexandre-Joseph said.
Before pursuing her current role she wrestled with wondering, “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I savvy enough to do national work?”
“Here I am with my friend saying I saw this [job opening] and I thought of you, and here I am telling myself you’re not good enough for it…That fear is driven by the subtle, and not so subtle, social cues you get from mainstream white dominant culture that if you’re not going to be a leader in a way that they recognize, then you’re not going to be successful.”
In launching the South Asian Worker’s Center, Jyoti Sinha had pulled off a concept that men in the community had been working toward for years. But, she said, rather than joining her, she faced more judgment, demeaning comments about her work, and discriminatory assumptions about her personal life.
Sinha described how toxic masculinity drives a view among some in the South Asian community that women who are driven, independent and outgoing, conversing with women and men, must also be “sexually open” and “promiscuous.” She faced harassment from contacts through her work.
“Sexual advances were made toward me, and I felt horrible,” she said. “We come from a cultural background where we’re not supposed to talk about it. [We’re told to] ‘Just be quiet…’
“In South Asian cultures, rigid gender norms create a system of crime and punishment that is cyclical and functions to disempower women,” Sinha says. “If a woman tends to break the rules of being quiet and obedient, if she reveals her knack for free thinking or acts progressive, it’s a threat to the men in general. It shines an ominous light on the fact that in a patriarchy, women are held under control for male benefit.”
This reminds me of thoughts I’ve had about the skepticism around Judge Jackson: Why can’t a successful woman of color simply be a successful woman of color? Also, clearly, there’s so much in the experience of being a woman of color leader that is completely unique to us.
Maybe this doubt translates to why women of color are extremely underrepresented in top leadership roles at companies (only 3.8% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are Black) or why we receive less than 1% of all philanthropic funding. You can draw a line from such underfunding directly to the competitive, rather than supportive, energy many grassroots leaders experience from other community organizations, who may fear that if another group gets funding, their effort will suffer as a result. This only perpetuates the myth that “there can only be one” successful minority-focused organization or minority within an organization, not to mention, such unnecessary competition can’t be helpful in alleviating the isolation women of color experience at work.
What the Women of Color Leadership Circle Brings
All of the above is why the Women of Color Leadership Circle (WOCLC) is so needed. The circle creates a space where 15 women of color from all levels of leadership, from first-time managers to CEOs, can come together in shared experience and connect over their challenges and celebrate their wins together. The circle is about restoring what white supremacy in our workplace and in our society at large has torn down — the notion that we are enough.
Jyoti Sinha is a member of this year’s WOCLC. When she began to feel ostracized by the other leaders in her field, who were men, she decided to find her own support group. Sinha says the WOCLC celebrates the qualities that often prompt some women in leadership to be labeled as difficult. She shares:
“I have been interacting with a brilliant cohort of 15 leaders…and I feel so connected every month…The monthly all-day meetings help the cohort to deepen our connection through our common struggle. Nurture our leaders and foster meaningful collaboration. Create a safe space for self-care, which is so important while doing this meaningful community scholarship. Learn to say NO to the misogynist activist and academic community within the progressive Boston city.
To the men who refused to support her work, even after admitting they’d been thinking of creating a similar project for years, she says:
“[my work] shouldn’t make you intimidated, rather you should be joining hands. To those of you who want to have the power – who want to hold the leadership only for yourself, and think that is necessary because 'women can’t be leaders' — to those who question a woman for being a more recent migrant, for not having the same Bostonian background or jargon or Ivy League connection, and ask 'oh, who is she?!' To those, I say, I am Jyoti, and I don’t come from any of those things of which you think one should come from to make social change. This is also my Boston and I will form an ethnic workers' center. I will support this woman’s group I am a part of, and will make each and every woman as empowered as I can. You can do whatever you want to do. But this kind of confidence, this kind of amazing strength, came to me when I started facing the criticism with an open mind and decided to break the cycle of disengagement, to break the systemic racism, which exists within our cultures. Since I joined the WOCLC, no longer will I tremble – rather, I will roar."
Charline Alexandre-Joseph is also a member of this year’s WOCLC. She shared that the circle has helped her worry less, trust herself, and move away from overworking for fear of being perceived as incapable. Here’s more about how the circle impacted her over the last four months:
“We haven’t even met in person yet, but the energy is so beautiful and dynamic that tears are shed on a regular basis, and there’s no shame in the tears because…no one’s going to hold it over your head that you had a vulnerable moment, which is different than what it feels like at work.
I think the WOCLC is so critical, it’s been such a blessing because it's a lot of like-minded professionals who also lead differently than their mainstream counterparts or than the organizations that they’re in. Some of the leaders are running their own thing. Others have inherited leadership, like CEOs, or are new to leadership, and they’re nervous. But, it’s also that fear, I think, that’s at the bottom of that, this fear of not being enough. Because that’s a message that a lot of women of color get. When you’re in the room with 14 other amazing women and femme-identifying people, you realize that you’re not the only one who’s had this socialization, and that there is an opportunity to change it and shift it, and that you are enough.”
The 2022 Women of Color Leadership Circle is sponsored by The Boston Foundation and the Angell Foundation and led by Boston Women’s Fund, with facilitation by Interaction Insitute for Social Change. Learn more about the Women of Color Leadership Circle here and send us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.