I am tired, completely and utterly tired. No, actually I’m exhausted. This is something that a leader is not supposed to say; but it’s whatever. Let me explain. I am hosting a series of zoom meetings as part of my campaign for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives. My district is a beautiful place with amazing people in northwestern Connecticut and includes large urban cities, affluent suburbs and small rural and farming communities. There are 41 cities and towns and I plan to host a series of listening session with the residents of each community. In this temporary Covid-19 reality we had to get creative about engagement. We are well into our schedule and are having great success.
Our fourth meeting starts, and about 10 minutes in I hear “shut up N-word.” I pause– not sure how to react, but I catch a glimpse of all the faces of the people who have joined the meeting. They are mortified, shocked, embarrassed, hurt and I could tell they didn’t know what to do next. They are all waiting to see what I do. I smile and calmly wait for my communications team to handle the situation. My team mutes the participant and they are removed from the meeting. I continue to speak and this happens again, from another participant. Only this time it’s the N-word on a loop set to music. This participant is also muted and removed from the meeting. This is repeated by two more people, clearly a coordinated effort. Six minutes of vile, disgusting, dare I say deplorable, hate– and I am on full display as I process, in real time, what is happening.
All the disruptive participants are removed and without skipping a beat, I smile, apologize to the remaining participants, make sure they are ok, and finish talking about my legislative work, election security, the Supreme Court and volunteering for my campaign. I assure everyone that I will be fine and that this word has no power over me. I tell them we have to work together and wrap up with a final call to vote. We finish up the last 20 minutes of the call and outside of pleasantries about my handling of the situation, we don’t actually focus our attention on the underlying issue of what we all just witnessed. We end the meeting on a high note and I assure them that I am unfazed by what they just witnessed.
The call ends and I have exactly nine minutes before my next meeting begins. I tell myself chin up, put your game face on, don’t let this get you down, you have more work to do. The next meeting lasts about an hour and goes off without a hitch. To wrap up my evening, I call my staffer, who was moderating the event, to see if she is ok. I call the only other Black person on the zoom to check in on her and be sure she is ok. I call my Communications Director to instruct him to report the incident. I cannot even reflect on what just happened because I have to be sure my team is ok. I sign out of my computer, but not before I post a screenshot of a section of the zoom chat which read “SHUT UP N-word GO PICK YOUR COTTON,” repeated in all caps over and over- fully appreciating the fact that cries of “identity politics” are sure to commence.
Many will question why I would post something so raw and offensive? It is because I realized in that moment that I am not ok. I am not ok that this happened. I am not ok, that this is not the first time this has happened in my life or that I’ve had to explain that this happens. I am not ok, that I have to post a screenshot to prove it happened. I am not ok, that people will still doubt that it happened or the word of the forty or so participants on the call will be a necessary to “verify” the incident happened. I am not ok, that I will have to delicately explain to people that this happens- here. I am not ok, that many will try and separate/defend these words and actions and will not see that these comments are not about policy or politics- they are about racism and hate and challenge our decency. I am not ok! I said it- I admit it, I am not ok.
Black women are expected to press on, to ignore this behavior; to not talk explicitly about it because it is uncomfortable, divisive or does not reflect the sentiments of most people. I have watched other women weather this storm and fend off these types of attacks and wonder if in their quiet places they have felt what I am feeling right now. We have become numb to this behavior, instinct kicks in and we just move on. So many well intentioned people say things like, ignore it, you’re better than that or don’t let it bother you. Even as I write, I am exhausted by the fact that I am carefully choosing my words, so as to capture the experience, but not offend the reader. We are left debating zoom security, yet not addressing the underlying issue- that pockets of racism and hate still exist right in our own front yard. The most painful part of it all is that no matter what you achieve in life, no matter how many degrees you earn or how good of a person you try to be- all some people will ever allow themselves to see is a N-word.
Has anyone ever considered the trauma of such an experience? Words matter and they cut deep, no matter how hard you try to suppress or ignore them-words hurt. In that moment I was reminded that I carry the weight of leading by example and knowing that everyone was watching my next step. As the first African American woman ever elected to Congress from CT, I know there is likely no blueprint for how to communicate my feelings on this topic to my constituents. I heard the words of Michelle Obama “when they go low we go high” play over and over in my head. I imagined if my Grandma were here she would shake her head and immediately start to pray as she recalled some of the most painful parts of her own history. I thought of the 17 year old who is met with the same racist, vitriol attacks and has to make the life defining decision of how they will respond. So NO- I am not ok.
It does not mean that I am broken, or that I will give up. It does not mean that I do not love my country or recognize that one person does not speak for the majority. It means that, tonight I will practice some self care. I will read a book, take a bath and maybe have a good cry and tomorrow I will steady myself and get back to work. Check in on your Black friends, I can assure you that there are many who are not ok in this current climate. Stop saying that this doesn’t happen here or dismissing it as antidotal. Have an honest conversation about what we are all experiencing. Listen, don’t project, don’t make judgments, just listen. While understanding my pain may be a journey for some, a refusal to acknowledge it is a non-starter for anyone who seeks to heal our nation.
The only way we can cut the cancer of racism out of our communities is by calling it out when we see it and raising our collective voices to get rid of it. In the words of Edmund Burke, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing.” Let’s all commit to doing something and being ok together.
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Democrat, lives in Waterbury and represents Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District.
This essay was first published by Medium on Oct. 13, 2020.