Ketanji Brown Jackson Is More Than Your Meme

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic nomination to the Supreme Court was confirmed Thursday, but the journey to get here has been long and exhausting — and not just for her but for Black women everywhere. As she put it in her own words, “It has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, but we’ve made it. We’ve made it — all of us.”

Confirmation hearings are always political theater, and despite being one of the most qualified people to join this institution, Jackson faced an unjustifiable level of scrutiny. Senators asked her inane questions about children’s books, critical race theory, and how she defined the concept of “woman.” To show support for the judge and disgust for her critics, social-media users zeroed in on her reactions to these racist and sexist lines of questioning: “Black women, we know this look,” one user captioned a photo of Jackson’s tight-lipped smile before Senator Josh Hawley, who repeatedly misconstrued Jackson’s record on sentencing child-pornography offenders.

Twitter swiftly turned every twitch of Jackson’s eyebrow, smile from her daughter, and calm look on her parents’ faces into memes of triumph over this country’s legacy of racism and white supremacy. “That tear runs over 400 years deep. #resiliency,” one tweet read. A tweet that juxtaposed a picture of Jackson’s daughter smiling at her father with one of Senator Ted Cruz’s daughter looking away from him read, “In a world full of Ted Cruzes, be a parent that leaves your kid looking at you like Ketanji Brown Jackson’s daughter looks at her parents.”

These memes don’t appear in a vacuum. Black women in particular understand the challenge of being one of the “first” and “only,” especially in white-dominated workplaces. According to a 2020 Gallup Center on Black Voices survey, Black women are the least likely to feel valued or treated with respect at work, and they are the least likely to believe there is a climate of fair treatment among co-workers.

Personally, we’ve been in meetings where our ideas are attributed to the nearest non-Black person. We’ve sat still while our co-workers wrongly assumed we had an attitude or were angry. We’ve had our expertise in professional spaces be minimized to caretaker roles. These slights can chip away at our desire for professional ambition and, more important, our mental health and sense of self.

Our story may not be Jackson’s story. We don’t know what was going on in her head, or her daughter’s or her parents’, during these confirmation hearings, and it’s not helpful for us to assume. There are very few people in history who’ve been nominated for the Supreme Court; Jackson’s experience is not universal by any stretch of the imagination. Using her and her family to contend with the ugly history — and present — of white supremacy in the United States places an unfair burden on a handful of people braving a uniquely odd and extremely public gauntlet. 

Whether at a confirmation hearing, at work, or in class, it’s already exhausting for Black people to have to navigate spaces that are unwelcoming while expending additional effort to micromanage our physiognomy. Black people want and deserve recognition for the breadth and depth of our humanity. Jackson is more than a tight smile in the face of immense public scrutiny, and she and Black women everywhere are done a disservice when our experiences are boiled down to a facial expression. Sometimes an eyebrow raise is just that.

Ketanji Brown Jackson Is More Than Your Meme