When a group of racist agitators crashed Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes’ virtual listening session on Monday, the congresswoman’s first instinct was to calmly press on, then check on everyone else and make sure they were OK.
The first Black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, Hayes was hosting the campaign event with residents from Newtown. But 10 minutes into the Zoom call, Hayes says she was interrupted by a person telling her, “SHUT UP N-word.” When her communications team promptly muted and kicked out the person from the meeting, another participant began playing the racial slur looped in a song. Two more people joined in after that participant was cut off, hurling slurs and insults at the congresswoman in the chat and over the Zoom audio.
Through the attack, which lasted about six minutes, Hayes remained calm and hyper-aware of her reactions and those of the meeting participants, whose shock, hurt and embarrassment were on clear display. Though the racial slurs had been targeted at her, Hayes said she first checked in to make sure the participants were OK, apologizing for the interruption and assuring them the word had no power over her. She pressed on with her agenda. After the meeting ended, she checked in on her staff and the only other Black participant in the Zoom call.
Only then was Hayes willing to admit—despite her immediate and instinctual reassurances—that she was not, in fact, OK.
Hayes laid out these experiences in-depth in a Medium post on Tuesday, explaining that as a Black woman, she knows she is expected to “press on, to ignore this behavior; to not talk explicitly about it because it is uncomfortable, divisive or does not reflect the sentiments of most people.” But the Democratic congresswoman, who has also been candid about her experiences recovering from COVID-19 this year, told the Hartford Courant on Tuesday it was important to her to be transparent about the attack.
“I really want to pull back the curtain and help to educate people … in the classroom you build a relationship of trust and everything flows out of that,” said Hayes, who won the National Teacher of the Year award in 2016.
In her essay, Hayes describes how the event impacted her, how she’s been processing it and how it fits into larger conversations and concerns about race and racism.
“I am not ok, that this is not the first time this has happened in my life or that I’ve had to explain that this happens,” Hayes wrote. “I am not ok, that I have to post a screenshot to prove it happened. I am not ok, that people will still doubt that it happened or the word of the forty or so participants on the call will be a necessary to ‘verify’ the incident happened. I am not ok, that I will have to delicately explain to people that this happens—here.”
“Even as I write, I am exhausted by the fact that I am carefully choosing my words, so as to capture the experience, but not offend the reader,” Hayes continued. “We are left debating Zoom security, yet not addressing the underlying issue—that pockets of racism and hate still exist right in our own front yard.”
“The most painful part of it all is that no matter what you achieve in life, no matter how many degrees you earn or how good of a person you try to be- all some people will ever allow themselves to see is a N-word.”
As the need to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus has taken all kinds of meetings and organizing work, racist attacks on conference calls—also known as “Zoom bombing”—have cropped up across the United States. Educational forums have been particularly susceptible—participants have crashed online classrooms and group meetings, hurling abuse primarily directed at women and people of color.
Hayes assured readers that she wasn’t “broken” by the experience, but noted that she was going to “practice some self care” in response to the event.
“I will read a book, take a bath and maybe have a good cry and tomorrow I will steady myself and get back to work,” Hayes wrote. But she urged readers to make sure they were doing their own work to confront racism in their lives.
“While understanding my pain may be a journey for some, a refusal to acknowledge it is a non starter for anyone who seeks to heal our nation,” she said. “The only way we can cut the cancer of racism out of our communities is by calling it out when we see it and raising our collective voices to get rid of it.”