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.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In just a couple of hours yesterday, the internet became captivated by incidents of two black women being criticized in public by high-profile white men. First, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dismissed a speech by Congresswoman Maxine Waters by talking about her hair.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")
BILL O'REILLY: I didn't hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.
SHAPIRO: James Brown wig. O'Reilly later apologized. And at the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer paused his criticism of veteran reporter April Ryan's questions to talk about her body language.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEAN SPICER: But you know what? You're asking me a question and I'm going to answer it, which is the president - I'm sorry. Please stop shaking your head again.
SHAPIRO: On Twitter, black women started telling their own stories of being disrespected or mistreated using the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. The educator and activist Brittany Packnett was behind the conversation and joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks for being here.
BRITTANY PACKNETT: Thanks so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Why did you encourage people to tell their stories with this hashtag?
PACKNETT: It was important that people recognized that what happened to April Ryan and Congresswoman Waters yesterday is not a rarity. The kind of slights, both big and small, that black women experience at work are happening every single day. And 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.
SHAPIRO: Can you give us a couple of your favorite responses using the hashtag?
PACKNETT: There were lots of responses - I don't know if I'd call them my favorite (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Yeah, sure, maybe the wrong word.
PACKNETT: There were lots of responses about our hair. The idea that wearing our hair naturally as it grows out of our heads is somehow radical or unprofessional is something that a lot of black women have encountered, myself included. I was once told never to put in braids when I was wearing my natural hair straight. I decided in response to put in the very longest braids I felt like I could wear. A lot of women also dealt with people being surprised that they were in charge, that they were the boss, that they were in positions of authority.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. I saw so many of those. Actually, I am the teacher. Actually, I am the doctor. Actually, I'm not the assistant. I'm not going to get you coffee.
PACKNETT: Exactly. And this idea that a black woman's presence is to be policed or politicized in the workplace is really what we're talking about. 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 dealing with every single day. And managers, coworkers, our colleagues, it's time that they listen up. And it's time that people create inclusive work environments.
SHAPIRO: It seems that sometimes it can be hard to distinguish what is because of being a woman, what is because of being black, what is because of being a black woman.
PACKNETT: Well, most certainly there are experiences that all women have in common. But we have to recognize that there are experiences unique to black women. So often our issues come from being seen as intimidating, being seen as oversexualized. And so there are certainly things that happen to all women. But it was important to have a conversation yesterday about what happens to black women. That doesn't mean that all women don't matter. It does, however, mean that there's room for us to have a conversation about how we treat women of color in the workplace.
SHAPIRO: Does it make you question how much progress black women have made in this country?
PACKNETT: I know that we've made progress because so many of us were able to tell our stories yesterday. For all of the women who still couldn't, there were women who were ready to stand up and be bold and take the risk of making our voices heard, taking back our agency and speaking for ourselves. Not letting yesterday be defined by Bill O'Reilly or by Sean Spicer, but by us standing up in our own power and remembering that women that we love, support and admire like April Ryan and Congresswoman Waters belong to us and that we can stand for each other.
And so I know that yesterday was a symbol of progress even though it was an identification of many of our challenges. And I know that lots of non-black women decided yesterday to listen, to learn, to decide what they could do differently on the next day. That's an important step forward. That's some of the power of social media.
SHAPIRO: Brittany Packnett is the educator and activist behind the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. Thanks for joining us.
PACKNETT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAMPHA SONG, "KORA SINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.