Ketanji Brown Jackson and the burden of firstness

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing
Associated Press/Alex Brandon
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. 

During the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “You, Judge Jackson, can be the first. It’s not easy being the first. You have to be the best and in some ways the brightest.”  

That statement could not be more true — or more problematic. It implies that women of color everywhere have to accept only one reality: Getting ahead for them must always require working harder, doing more and accepting discrimination as inevitable. Shouldn’t instead the burden lie with society to work harder to evolve?

This week’s confirmation hearings provide the public with a window into the challenges faced every day by women of color in the workplace. They exposed the inequity and bias that is so pervasive that it even follows us into the most elite seats of power, and highest levels of professional achievement. 

Just like Jackson, who forced a smile through uncomfortable and even offensive moments, women of color have learned to hold their emotions even when colleagues and bosses greet them with insensitive comments like, “You are so articulate.” 

Does being a first really have to require this?

The double standard that demands that Jackson not only be qualified, but overqualified, mirrors what countless women of color face in the workplace. 

After spending decades navigating the corporate world as a “first” woman of color leader, and feeling isolated, confused and forced to prove myself again and again, I left my job and spent the last few years interviewing hundreds of professional women of color to study the challenges of being a “first, few and only.” Just this week a woman of color shared that during a recent interview process, the HR team asked her for her Ph.D. thesis and documentation, something she confirmed was not asked of the white candidates. 

Durbin was right when he said, “You have to be the best.” Firstness as a woman of color requires you to be exceptional, perfect and irreproachable. The women I met have to edit, conform and give up parts of themselves to get ahead, and success often comes at the cost of their health and their agency. They get to seats of power yet still struggle to feel powerful. Many of them end up surviving instead of thriving. This is the dark and damaging side of firstness and trailblazing. 

Jackson’s trial won’t end once she takes her seat. When she becomes a justice, her job will be so much bigger than the job she is confirmed into. There is a “job within the job” for women of color who are firsts. One woman I interviewed shared that as the only Black person in her entire company, she feels the weight of “representing her whole race” with colleagues who have never met another Black person. 

When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) paused and told Jackson she was worthy, she cried as she appeared to feel a balm to the unspoken burden she carried. I would have cried too, and so would have countless numbers of women of color who identify with the same need for affirmation.  

We all need to remind women of color they are worthy. We have work to do as a society if we want the firsts to become many.

Deepa Purushothaman is the author of “The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.” She is the cofounder of nFormation. Purushothaman is also a Women and Public Policy Program leader in practice at the Harvard Kennedy School. Deepa previously spent more than 20 years at Deloitte, where she was one of the youngest people and the first Indian American woman to make partner in the company’s history. She was also the U.S. managing partner of Deloitte’s WIN (Women’s Initiative) program to recruit, retain and advance women. Follow her on Twitter: @DeepaPuru

Tags Biden judiciary Cory Booker Deepa Purushothaman Dick Durbin Judiciary Ketanji Brown Jackson people of color SCOTUS Supreme Court Women women of color

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