A pair of testy exchanges between high-profile black women and white men in the political spotlight launched a tweetstorm under the hashtag BlackWomenAtWork, validating the experiences of thousands of professional black women who say such slights are all too common.
It began Tuesday morning with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly ridiculing veteran congresswoman Maxine Waters, referring to her hair as “a James Brown wig,” after watching a video of the California Democrat criticizing Republican President Donald Trump’s policies. Later that day, during a White House press briefing, American Urban Radio Network host April Ryan was admonished by press secretary Sean Spicer, who told her to “stop shaking your head” as he responded to her question.
After the exchanges, Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett took to Twitter and urged her followers: “Share your Maxine and April moments, so people don’t think this is rare. Use #BlackWomenAtWork.”
Packnett added that black women meet at least three O’Reillys and five Spicers a day, and she went on to list her own examples — including a time when she was asked about her blue nail polish at a meeting and another when a college dean discouraged her from wearing braids.
Davia Lassiter saw the hashtag and felt inspired. She said that she watched the exchange between Ryan and Spicer and saw a black woman being treated like a child and that the O’Reilly remarks about Waters felt familiar.
“When he attacked her hair, we all felt that as black women,” Lassiter said. “These women were doing their jobs, but instead of them doing their jobs, the men wanted to insult and chastise them.”
The hashtag quickly became a Twitter trending topic. And according to TwitterCounter, which logs follower numbers periodically, Waters’ follower count has increased by more than 77,000 since March 13, though it’s unclear how much of that has come in the last few days. Similarly, Ryan has seen a significant increase in followers, from 58,100 on Saturday to 100,960 on Wednesday.
The hashtag was a reminder that black women have long had to steel themselves against such exchanges, highlighting the challenge of balancing race and gender, said Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of the Perception Institute, a consortium of researchers, advocates and strategists focused on bias and discrimination.
“It helps us understand the lived experiences of black women every day,” Johnson said. “It’s a tool, a vehicle, for us to affirm and nod and raise our hand up and say, ‘Yeah, me, too,’ and, ‘No, not today.'”
The hashtag attracted everyday women as well as women in politics and entertainment. By Tuesday night, Waters had joined the conversation, tweeting: “I am a strong black woman. I cannot be intimidated, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Black women shared stories on Twitter of unwanted hair touching, having their ideas overlooked or taken, disrespect from subordinates, questioning of their academic credentials, accusations of being angry and criticism for wearing certain clothes drawing attention to curvier body types.
As the hashtag started trending, Packnett tweeted, “I sadly knew it would trend. Not because I’m special. Because I know how we get treated.”
Lassiter, a marketing executive who lives in Austell, Georgia, said navigating such incidents is “this thing we’ve gotten used to putting up with.”
“I’m not going to say we can’t win. I feel like we win every day,” Lassiter said. “But we have these moments where the only thing you can say is, ‘Damn. I work my butt off, I have these accolades, but I still have to deal with this.”
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.
Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous