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#BlackWomenAtWork: Women Speak Out After Criticism Of Journalist, Congresswoman

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., tweeted that she "cannot be intimidated" after Fox News host Bill O'Reilly made dismissive comments about her on TV on Tuesday.
Aaron P. Bernstein
Getty Images
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., tweeted that she "cannot be intimidated" after Fox News host Bill O'Reilly made dismissive comments about her on TV on Tuesday.

Two separate high-profile incidents broadcast this week highlighted the criticism black women regularly face in the workplace and spurred many to share their own experiences on social media.

"It's high time that people recognize it's not just happening on television — it's happening at the cube right next to them, and they have something they can do about it," says educator and activist Brittany Packnett.

On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dismissed comments about President Trump made by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, mocking her hair and saying, "I didn't hear a word she said, I was looking at the James Brown wig." O'Reilly later apologized.

The same day, at the daily White House briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer lectured veteran reporter April Ryan as she pressed him on the Trump administration's alleged ties to Russia during the campaign.

"Please, stop shaking your head again," Spicer told Ryan, who reports for American Urban Radio Networks. At the next day's briefing, Spicer called on Ryan first in an apparent attempt to smooth over the incident.

To many black women, including Packnett, the treatment both Waters and Ryan received while doing their jobs was not surprising. Packnett encouraged women to share their stories with the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork.

"It was important that people recognize that what happened to April Ryan and Congresswoman Waters [on Tuesday] is not a rarity," she told NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered. "The kind of slights, both big and small, that black women experience at work are happening every single day."

Packnett said that, like many black women, she had been told that her natural hair, or wearing it in braids, was unprofessional.

Others shared stories online about being told they were too intimidating or having people assume they were the cleaning staff or an assistant when they're actually the one in charge.

"This idea that a black woman's presence is to be policed or politicized in the workplace is what we're talking about," Packnett said. "The idea that Sean Spicer can tell April Ryan what to do with her face, irrespective of her years in journalism, the idea that Maxine Waters' voice is less important than her hair, is what black women are experiencing every single day."

Ultimately, she hopes that the hashtag and that the two incidents start a needed conversation about how women of color are treated in the workplace.

"It's time we make the invisible visible, and it's high time that people create inclusive work environments," Packnett said.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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