Ketanji: Grace in the face of the absurd

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. 

Photo credit: AFP

Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” “On a scale of one to 10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion?”

“So, what personal hidden agendas do you harbour or do you think other judges harbour?”

“Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker.”

This is a sample of the ridiculous statements and absurd questions posed to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman to stand before the US senate judiciary committee as a Supreme Court justice nominee. In its 233-year history, 115 justices have served in the US Supreme Court.

Of these, only seven justices have not been white men. Upon confirmation, Judge Jackson will become the first black woman and the sixth woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. She will be the third black person to serve in the highest court of justice in the US, after Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Ketanji’s confirmation as the first black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court will be profoundly significant to millions of black women across the world seeking to break glass ceilings in their careers. To witness a black woman stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a Supreme court justice nominee so fearless and self-assured — in her natural hair, no less — sends a powerful message to black women across the globe that nothing is out of our reach.

Political zigzagging

Amid the political zigzagging, we were also horrified to witness the maltreatment of Judge Jackson by Republican senators. From mischaracterising Ketanji — a mother of two girls —as an apologist for child-sex offenders, to deliberately taking her statements out of context, to asking her outrageous questions like “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?”, her confirmation hearing and the circus that followed is every black woman’s lived experience.

Many could relate; the racist undertones and suggestions that she is “an affirmative action nominee”, the attempts to discredit her impeccable credentials, the patronising questions, and outrageous accusations to test her limits are all too familiar for many black women in the workplace.

What we admired most was Ketanji’s calmness and composure throughout. Not once did she lose her cool. Instead, with poise and grace, she confidently answered the questions and elegantly challenged the outrageous accusations. She did not allow her detractors to use this opportunity to define her.

Instead, she owned her story. She controlled the narrative and used the opportunity to prove her capabilities. She talked about her strong family background, her childhood experiences and the incredible support of her family. She acknowledged her support system; an equally accomplished husband, two wonderful daughters, supportive parents and a brother who looked on admiringly.

Ketanji’s experience and her expert handling of the detractors presents an important case study on how to behave under pressure; you might not control how other people treat you, but you can control how you react.

The writer is the Director, Innovation Centre, at Aga Khan University; [email protected]