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March 29, 2017

Do you work with black women? Maybe it’s a good day to ask us how we’re doing. We’ve been in the news, after all.

Yesterday, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and White House press secretary Sean Spicer accidentally kicked off a firestorm on Twitter. At issue were condescending remarks aimed at two different black professional women. The events were unconnected, but the scenarios will be familiar.

During the morning show Fox & Friends, Bill O’Reilly reviewed a clip of Rep. Maxine Water [D-Calif] who had been critical of President Trump on the House floor. “We fight against this president and we point out how dangerous he is,” she said. “We’re saying to those who say they’re patriotic, but they turn a blind eye to the destruction he is about to cause to this country. You are not nearly as patriotic as we are.” In response, O’Reilly laughed, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

Then later in the day, Spicer admonished April Ryan, an Urban Radio Networks reporter who covers the White House, to “stop shaking her head again,” after a contentious back and forth. He did this in front of her peers and on international television.

It didn’t take long for Twitter to unpack exactly what was wrong with these separate but equally offensive exchanges. Activist Brittany Packnett amplified the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork to help other women share the stories of being demeaned, belittled, overlooked or otherwise disregarded. “Today, we were told a Black woman’s hair matters more than her voice, and our choices are under the control of others,” she tweeted. And then this: “This happens to black women everyday at work. Share your Maxine and April moments, so people don’t think this is rare. Use #BlackWomenAtWork.”

And share they did:

  • “Arrive to keynote. White faculty ask me to go get them some water. I get it. Then tell them why I’m really there.” @pastortraci
  • #BlackWomenAtWork are paid less, asked to do more, are constantly antagonized, and then called angry/abrasive for setting boundaries. @BlackMajiik
  • Pulling into my own reserved parking space and being told by a random WW that cleaning people can’t park there. @GPBMadeit
  • I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been called articulate. Folks are shocked every time I open my mouth. @MarissaReneeLee

The feed was instructive and cathartic. Women shared being spoken over in meetings, upbraided for being “aggressive,” overlooked for promotions, mistaken for a support function. (And if you take nothing else away from the conversation, then know this: stop touching black women’s hair. Please.) But you’ll also find solidarity, strength, and humor.

Even Hillary Clinton talked about both Ryan and Waters in a speech Tuesday afternoon to the Professional BusinessWomen of California. “Too many women, especially women of color, have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride,” she said.

“I’m surrounded everyday by brilliant, confident, incredible black professional women who get demeaned despite their prowess. Today, I was over it,” Packnett told The Huffington Post. “I wanted the hashtag to make the invisible visible, to challenge non-black people to stand with black women not just when this happens on television, but in the cube right next to them,” she said.

O’Reilly later apologized for his hair comment and will appear on television again like nothing happened. Okay, fine. But today, untold numbers of black women are walking into work steeled to wave off the microaggressions that sap them of energy, respect, influence and earning power. That’s not fine.

Every now and then, social tools make it possible for voices to be heard in ways that can be a temporary shock to the system. It’s up to us to take it the rest of the way, like Waters herself, who eventually joined the hashtag launched in her honor. “I am a strong black woman. I cannot be intimidated, and I’m not going anywhere. #BlackWomenAtWork,” she tweeted.

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I don't ever want you to forget that there are millions of God's children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don't want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
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