Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, is sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week during her weeklong confirmation hearing, answering senators’ questions on her qualifications, judgments and philosophy. She is speaking for hours on some of the nation’s most controversial issues – abortion, critical race theory, court-packing. But some of the hearing’s most captivating moments involved no words at all, were found instead in the expressions of the family behind her: a husband overwhelmed with emotion, a daughter who smiled at her mother with awe.
They were tender moments that hinted at the enormity of the day, and Jackson’s introduction of her family members helped add important context for how she arrived there. Jackson said without her husband Dr. Patrick Jackson’s support “none of this would have been possible,” and she told her daughters, Talia and Leila, she knew “it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood” and admitted she “did not always get the balance right.”
Her family’s emotion and her nods to their support and sacrifice shine light on the historically overlooked achievements of Black women, the challenges of working mothers, and the value of men who champion them.
“Hearings for Supreme Court nominees aren’t merely formal political procedures. They’re live drama media spectacles. The theatrics aren’t a distraction – in many ways they are the focal point of these important cultural moments,” said Jackson Katz, a gender expert and author of several books on the politics of masculinity.
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Karyn Lacy, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class,” said it’s important Jackson’s husband’s tears are not only framed in the context of gender equality but also viewed through the lens of intersectionality. Dr. Patrick Jackson, who is white, is married to a Black woman, which Lacy said gives him a front-row seat to some of the unique challenges Black women face in white-collar occupations.
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“Most white men are not positioned to see the world from this vantage point,” she said. “In that sense, Dr. Jackson’s tears reminded me of the tears I saw Black people shed, older Black people in particular when Obama was first elected in 2008. It’s a recognition that while historically Black people have been denied the opportunity to reach their full potential, every now and then, there’s a breakthrough.”
Jackson’s husband offers ‘honest display of emotion’
On social media, many users called Jackson’s husband’s reaction “powerful,” claiming it offered a model for healthy heterosexual partnership.
“One of the great things about media coverage of Brown Jackson’s husband’s response to her nomination – including his honest display of emotion – is that in an era when so many men in public life are clearly threatened by strong women, it provides men, young men, and boys with a concrete example of a highly successful man who is confident enough to embrace progress for women, which is another way of saying progress for our democratic ideals and values,” Katz said.
Tony Porter, founder of A Call to Men, an organization that focuses on reframing the definition of manhood, points out the attention around the display of emotion also underscores how uncommon it remains.
“We would not question this if her mother was wiping a few tears. We would not question it if her daughters or her girlfriend were wiping away a few tears,” he said.
Working mothers praise Ketanji Brown Jackson’s vulnerability
When Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke to her daughters about failing to always get “the balance right,” many working mothers thanked her for her vulnerability. They felt that, too. They feel it still.
Porter said for Jackson to succeed as a Black woman, facing the dual forces of sexism and racism, it likely required her to put in a significant amount of time and energy that at times kept her from being fully present in her children’s lives. But he also said it’s notable that Jackson felt she needed to apologize for it.
“A woman celebrates the success and then because of socialization, feels she also has a responsibility to apologize for her absence,” he said.
Dawn Dow, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland-College Park and author of “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood,” found in her research that middle- and upper-middle-class Black mothers often stay in the workforce, even when their children are young.
Jess Calarco, a sociology professor at Indiana University who studies systems of inequality, said those decisions reflect racial wealth and income inequalities that can make it difficult for many Black mothers to afford to stay home with their children, as well as reflect racist stereotypes that Black women may face if they do decide to stay home with their children full-time, including that they are poor or seeking welfare.
Calarco said Dow’s work shows “why and how Ketanji Brown Jackson has persisted despite the challenges of being a Black mother working in a field built for wealthy white men, and also shows us why her family has rallied behind her and cheered her on every step of the way.”
Jackson told her daughters she hopes they “have seen that with hard work, determination and love, it can be done. I am so looking forward to seeing what each of you chooses to do with your amazing lives.”
The cheering went both ways.
During the hearing, on her daughter Leila’s seat was a yellow piece of paper adorned with hand-drawn balloons that read, “You got this!”