Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

While so many were stuck in the thick oily wake of the slap heard around the world, all I could do was think about Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s poise during her confirmation hearings, and Senator Cory Booker’s words in her defense.

It’s a myth of white supremacy that a white woman’s honor needs to be protected with brute force. That myth has, time and time again, led to the assault and/or murder of young Black men who were suspected of threatening the honor of white women. It’s also a myth that was never extended to Black women.

Instead, Black women get to be at the center of conflict but are seldom the focal point of respect. The tendency to disregard Black women ripple throughout the way talking heads discuss our hair, our qualifications and — in the case of Bridgeport resident, Lauren Smith-Fields, who was found dead in her bed after a Bumble date — our harm.

I’m not interested in parsing through the reasons Will Smith took it upon himself to mount an Oscar stage during a live broadcast to slap Chris Rock in the face. Nor do I care about whether Rock will press charges or if Smith will issue yet another formal apology.

My focus is, instead, on the fact that this story, like so many others, has a silent Black woman at its center with far more vocal men — both Black and white — taking up all the space they possibly can.

Do you see the pattern here?

Smith-Fields, Brown Jackson, and Jada Pinkett Smith couldn’t be more different from each other – Black women aren’t a monolith. Yet still, all three have been treated with a similar disregard or deprioritization of their perspective, voices, or opinions on the matters in which we find them at the center.

Brown Jackson has been lauded as one of the most qualified judges to be nominated for the court. She boasts an Ivy League law school degree, was a Supreme Court Clerk, public defender, and district judge. She’s served as the Vice-Chair of the Sentencing Commission and as a Court of Appeals judge. Yet, as of March 30, only one Republican has publicly backed her nomination.

Through two days and nearly 24 hours of questioning, Brown Jackson’s qualifications became even more apparent as she skillfully navigated the thinly veiled dog whistles, racist rhetoric, and attacks on her objectively spotless record. She came prepared with notes, citations, and references to rebut most, if not all, of the baseless concerns raised by Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham, and Josh Hawley.

As I watched, I thought back to the moment during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing when Republican Sen. John Cornyn asked her to show the notes she was using to prepare and respond to answers. In response, she held up a blank notepad. Naturally, this gesture was taken by her Republican supporters to mean she was able to speak on a variety of legal issues without notes. But I take this juxtaposition as a clear sign that Black women must be twice as good to get half as much.

Smith-Fields’ example reminds us that when given the chance, journalists, police and every day people default to our factory settings of assuming Black women’s bodies are up for auction. When her story began get traction, publications used a bikini-clad photo of her or one holding a cocktail, while the man who was with her when she died was pictured in hiking gear. Make no mistake, the choice to use each of these photos sends the message that one of these people is an upstanding citizen and the other is deserving of her plight.

Smith-Fields’ family waited far too long for the Bridgeport Police Department to appropriately respond and reveal the name of the man who last saw her alive. They waited just as long for the media to cover the story.

Alternatively, pictures of Gabby Petito, the blonde ‘Van Life’ blogger whose disappearance consumed much media attention last fall, were plastered across broadcast news programs and national park social media accounts. Days after being reported missing, her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, was named as a person of interest, and the investigation was resolved in just over a month.

Now, you can’t reasonably compare a case from Connecticut to a case in Florida, or police departments from city to city, but it should come as no surprise that this is a pattern we’ve come to expect and accept when it comes to how we promote and protect white women and disregard Black women. Petito gets a voice without request, while Smith-Fields’ family had to scream for anyone to pay attention to her death.

Turning to Smith’s honor slap, it’s clear to me that misogynoir is at play again. The cameras are on the men with no real expectation of hearing Pinkett Smith’s concerns or exploring the harm done to her. Yet again, the men in the room get to scream and shout while the women, particularly Black women, must endure consistent humiliation and public disrespect.

Smith is no different from Senator Cruz or the Bridgeport Police Department, regardless of the justification. The ego-boosting actions have the same effect: the erasure of a Black women’s experience.

When we say ‘protect Black women’ we don’t mean unprovoked assault.

When we say protect Black women, we mean from attacks on our qualifications, our character, and from undue labor, humiliation, and public disregard. We also mean that Black women are as deserving of the respect, care, and gentle consideration that white women receive without request. We mean that our deaths should matter as much as white women’s, that our cries should conjure as much concern, that our issues get as much attention, and that the camera be turned to us to speak instead of the men in the room who think they know more.

Everyone’s factory settings are to ignore Black women. It’s time for that to end.

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.