Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the most senior of 12 Black women in Congress and chair for the House Financial Services Committee recently met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, giving him a real lesson in what has been termed “mansplaining” — a new word in the English vernacular which most women must encounter time after time in a society dominated by men. It’s when a man attempts to explain something to a woman, the “slower species,” in a manner that’s patronizing or condescending.
But Mnuchin, as evident in the way he spoke to Waters, would discover that she was more prepared than he will ever be. While discussing his plans for responding to the Democrats’ requests for Donald Trump’s tax returns, Mnuchin said, with just one day’s notice, that he had an important meeting with a very important person (name not provided) that would require him to leave the meeting early. Back and forth they went, with Mnuchin exhibiting the kind of arrogance, hubris and bravado typical of a white man in conversation with a person of color — especially a Black woman.
Waters, unruffled by the obvious disrespect that Mnuchin exhibited, took the Secretary at his word — accepting his offer to remain. Then, he countered that she’d “ordered” him to stay so that more committee members could ask questions. He even instructed her as to how to end the meeting, saying, “Please dismiss everybody,” red-faced, clearly impatient and irritated.
“I believe you are supposed to take the ‘gravel’ [sic] and bang it,” he shared, raising his arm to mimic the banging of the misnamed instrument, a gavel. Of course, Aunt Maxine had a response which she proffered calmly and with the kind of swag that didn’t surprise me at all: “Please do not instruct me as to how I am to conduct this committee,” she said.
Don’t get it twisted. Mnuchin was rude, impertinent and clearly used to getting his way — illustrative of white male privilege at its best. If the situation had been reversed and Waters, or any female politician for that matter, had interacted with a male, especially a white man, in similar fashion, whether he was in charge or not, she would have had her lunch eaten. She’d be strung up and lambasted on the evening news. But for a Black woman to talk to a white man in such a manner — and to never raise her voice, or, if we lean on stereotypes from the “hood,” never snapping her polished nails or rocking her head in a manner that only a sister can do — that shows real self-control.
Real power is displayed not by what one says, but rather by what one does not say. Black women have been bullied by the likes of Mnuchin so often in the American landscape that it’s almost expected. But after confronting an arrogant, obstreperous bully like Mnuchin who feels empowered to belittle those who he feels are beneath him, Black women, particularly those who have achieved success in the public realm, have had to master the skills of the game and to perfect how to offer their rebuttal — how to say just enough — and no more. As I always say, “Less is more.”
Mnuchin has probably called Aunt Maxine everything but a child of God. But I’ll bet the next time the two square off, he’ll think twice about how he speaks to her. To be embarrassed again, and in public, could send him over the edge. I hope the chance for such an encounter comes soon.
As for Maxine Waters, I can’t wait for the opportunity to give her an exuberant high-five. And to think, all she did was come to the table armed with the weapon that America has tried to keep out of the hands of Black folks for hundreds of years: competence, the product that one receives with equal education.
Years ago, a white professor from South Africa, teaching a high-level Philosophy course at Princeton Theological Seminary unbraided me in front of my classmates, advising me that since I’d never taken a philosophy class, while everyone else in the class had, that my best bet would be to immediately withdraw and seek another avenue. It was my very first class on campus.
In response, I feigned illness and asked him to accompany me out into the hallway. There I told him that I’d faced “creatures” like him before, in my college-prep, all-boys high school in Detroit, at the University of Michigan as an undergrad, at Emory in a highly-competitive master’s program — even during my years in corporate America at places like Dow Chemical and IBM. I shared how sick to my stomach he’d made me and asked him what I needed to do to make up the difference in my learning so I could master the material which he felt was so far above my head and mental abilities.
Then, upon his advice which he said thinking I’d never pull it off, I went to our library and, with the help of the only other Black in the program, another brother, checked out almost 1,000 books. When doctoral exams came up several years later, I aced them. As for the professor in question, he not only apologized to me but said, in front of my committee, that he’d never had a student reach such academic achievement particularly coming from so far behind the rest of the pack.
That’s what Black folk have been doing since the beginning of time. I wasn’t surprised at all.
As for the case of Maxine Waters, I’m not surprised with her level of competence either. For Blacks in America, and around the world, it’s the only way we know.