What do we mean when we say #ProtectBlackWomen? Like what are we actually saying when we bookend our posts on social media with the hashtag? I’m not asking out of confusion over what the hashtag represents, but more so out of curiosity over what that protection is supposed to look like in practice.
It’s been on my mind while watching the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and feeling triggered at the sight of a wildly qualified candidate having to suffer through the misogynoir of white folks angry at the thought of the first Black woman rising to the Supreme Court.
Jackson is fiercely accomplished. She’d be the most experienced trial court judge to join the Supreme Court in almost a century and only the second sitting justice to serve at all three levels of the federal judiciary (and also the first public defender in history to become a justice). Her resume is astounding, and yet she’s had to tolerate having her qualifications and her character brutally attacked and scrutinized by mediocre white men who didn't have to achieve half of what she has—a tale as old as time.
The absurd attacks of Jackson’s resume and the racist tone of questioning directed at her as she soldiered through and kept the composure expected of her as a Black woman was a painful reminder that this hashtag really does feel like lip service.
Watching that single tear fall down Jackson’s face made me think about all that our Black women and girls endure and how rarely they feel affirmed, let alone, protected in public or in private. I thought about Lizzo and the ways she’s had her body positivity condemned by people who don’t think fat folks should just live in shame. I thought about Doja Cat, Ari Lennox and Chika, who all told us this past week that their mental wellbeing was being greatly impacted by Twitter trolls and instead of being met with support, they encountered more of the same misogynoir that made them no longer want to engage social media.
I thought about Megan Thee Stallion and the online harassment she’s continued to endure since coming forward about an incident in which she was allegedly shot by Tory Lanez and of the awfulness that was director Jane Campion singling out Venus and Serena Williams in her Critics Choice award speech to make some point about her challenges as a (white) woman director.
And I thought about the countless Black girls and women who aren’t in the spotlight, like 15-year-old “Child Q” from east London whose traumatic experience of being strip-searched by police at school simply because a teacher believed they smelled weed on her has galvanized a school district and is at the center of a lawsuit.
When we talk about protection, what do we mean? We have the stats and the studies to show how little protection Black women have when it comes to their bodies, their careers, their emotional and physical wellbeing so what does protection look like—and who gets to define what that protection is? We know that Black women disproportionately experience violence at home, at school, on the job and in their communities. And we've seen enough to know Black women and girls are punished, greatly, for responding to the indignities or violence they meet. So when we say #ProtectBlackWomen, what does that actually look like?
It's funny that the week ended with Will Smith disrupting the Academy Awards telecast by slapping the taste out of Chris Rock’s mouth over an awful joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair. The joke itself wasn't funny, but our reaction to the slap certainly has been comical among other things.
Jada's shaved head is the result of alopecia, an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its hair follicles, leading to hair loss, and Rock opted to ad-lib a joke about her bald head. In a room full of white Hollywood elites he opted to poke at the physical appearance of a Black woman because it was easy. There were about a million jokes sitting on the table about the nominated films that none of us had seen or about any of the wild shit we've endured as people in these crazy times. But Rock opted to go off script and make a dig at Jada by referencing a 25-year-old box office flop when he could have just stuck to the script and made whatever silly quip that had been rehearsed.
Whether or not he had the knowledge of her medical condition isn’t entirely relevant here. This was a man who made a documentary about the history of Black women’s relationship with their hair (2009’s Good Hair) where he looked down on them and his track record of demeaning Black women for the sake of a joke is lengthy enough that many of us didn’t actually mind seeing Pootie Tang get his face rocked Big Willie Style.
I understand the shock of Smith deciding to respond to the violence of Rock’s misogynoir with physical violence won’t be fading from public view anytime soon, but it has been fascinating to see the discourse focus so squarely on the act of the slap itself and the power and class dynamics that allowed the incident to happen on national television without repercussion and not the provocation that led to it.
While we may not like or respect Will’s idea of what protection looked like in that moment, there was something about a Black man holding another Black man accountable over his misogynoir that felt different simply because of how rarely we see it. For so long we’ve seen Black women and girls be denigrated, disrespected and abused by the men in their community without any consequence. Just look at how long it took R. Kelly to face any actual repercussions for his actions.
Listen, I hated to see Will sully his big year and this career milestone but I also hate that a Black man walked onstage and thought he’d get a joke off on a Black woman who was there supporting her husband. Yes Will’s slap was awful and violent, but so was Rock’s slap—and the violence continues in the way there's a complete lack of empathy and compassion for Jada in all of this.
Maybe we’ll actually get around to having a real conversation around protection and what that looks like and why for so many of our women the first time they truly felt an act of public protection came from seeing Will Smith toss all respectability aside and smack the shit out of Chris Rock in the middle of the Oscars. Until we get there, I’ll be thinking about Sen. Cory Booker’s riveting words of affirmation that he extended to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her brutal hearings: “Don’t worry, my sister. Don’t worry. God has got you. How do I know that? Because you’re here and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat.