America to Me: A clear assessment of racial reality in America through the eyes of one student

Having grown up on the west side of Chicago, when I heard that there was going to be a documentary film that featured students at a high school in a suburb of Chicago, I wanted to see what it was about. Oak Park is an affluent white community just a few miles west of where I grew up. In miles, the distance between the west side and Oak Park was not great, but in racial and economic demographics, they might as well have been different countries.

During my years in high school, when people of color were seen in Oak Park, the assumption was that they were working in someone’s home or tending the yards, and not working in places of business or having a residence in the community. Decades after I finished high school and left Chicago, people of color began to move into Oak Park and many white people abandoned their homes to avoid living in a diverse community.

America to me starz documentary promo imageDuring the ten episodes of America to Me on the Starz network, filmmaker Steve James – known for making Hoop Dreams – and a diverse crew interviewed and filmed students during school and at home with their families.  They also filmed portions of Board of Trustees meetings. Some faculty were willing to be filmed in their classes and to be interviewed. I was impressed with the courage of faculty members who allowed themselves to be vulnerable for the sake of students, given that the leadership of the school and of the school system were not willing to be interviewed and were clearly not happy with the filming.

When I began watching the series, I was surprised that most of the students featured were students of color. If I’m recalling correctly, there were only two white students featured and two biracial students. One of the two white students in the film revealed that another white student told her that her parents refused to allow her to be part of the documentary because the film would probably be about white privilege. I found this comment interesting and telling because the school is known for its diversity and the current Oak Park community is considered politically liberal because these are the families that stayed as the community became more diverse.

During an interview on NPR with Joshua Johnson, host of The 1A, James revealed that in making the film he wanted to present America “principally through the eyes of students.” He said that he thought that black and biracial students in this generation were thinking about racial equity in what he saw as “extraordinary and deep ways.”

In addition to James, other guests interviewed by Johnson on The 1A were Amanda Lewis, Director for the Institute on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago; David Stovall, professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Charles Donalson, former student from Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Johnson asked his guests to comment on racial equity in public education. Dr. Stovall and Dr. Lewis spoke about redistribution of resources, opportunity hoarding, racial academic hierarchies, and such. Then the host asked Donalson his thoughts on racial equity in the following manner:

Charles, how do you see this? This difference when you were in high school, and I won’t ask you to speak for anyone’s high school but yours, but in terms of white students, students of color achievement. Those comments about students of color getting advantages just because of the color of their skin. Does that reflect your experience at all from high school or do you see it differently?

Here I am quoting Donalson as verbatim as possible because I don’t want to add to or subtract from his response:

Um, I think in general there is kind of like—There’s this blanket we put over white kids. It’s like they’re always going to be warm regardless of what happens. All of them are always going to be warm. When it comes to kids of color, there’s like, ok, we get like a whole bunch of sleeping bags, but we ain’t got one blanket for everybody and why some people get that sleeping bag, you know.

I definitely think for people like me and Gabe, who was also featured in the documentary, the school has prominent interest in us because of what we do with our extra-curriculars, so it was first already a thing. Ok. Well, we need to make sure those kids are good, you know, but for someone who isn’t in extra-curriculars, who doesn’t have any type of non-student-teacher relationship with any adult in the building, like it’s hard. They get trapped in between the margins because they don’t get the sleeping bag I was talking about. They’re not even considered to get one. And I think that’s the whole thing right there. It’s blankets versus sleeping bags.

Whereas all the white kids, all those kids who come from those types of homes, have stakes in the school, their parents are big funders, their siblings went there, whatever. Luckily I found Spoken Word.

As I listened to the student’s response, I wondered if Donalson realized the profundity of his analogy for white privilege. The image of a blanket brings to mind the comfort and warmth of a bed, togetherness, and everyone being covered. By contrast, the image of sleeping bags is one of being on the floor or ground, a feeling of discomfort, and each person being alone. There are never enough sleeping bags for everyone.

After hearing the student’s comments in response to a question about racial equity, I went to the Langston Hughes poem from which the title of the documentary is taken and read and reread this stanza:

Oh, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Langston Hughes
Let America Be America Again

This documentary series is hard to watch for those who know, and can be insightful for those who want to know. Most encouraging is the idea that the grandparents and parents of these current students started the Civil Rights Movement, and this new generation will carry it forward with a clear-eyed assessment of racial reality in America.

Words of Wisdom from DeRay Mckesson

Two summers ago, our neighborhood library hosted a book festival that included a panel with authors April Ryan, journalist and White House correspondent; Michael Eric Dyson, professor and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times; and DeRay Mckesson. I recalled Mckesson’s name from a recent conversation with college students who had been excited to host him on their campus. The students were surprised that I did not know who Mckesson was, asking them how to spell his name, since it was the first time I had heard it.

Now as Mckesson was on the neighborhood library’s panel with Ryan and Dyson, I wondered what book he had authored. As the panel spoke, I never discovered whether or not Mckesson had written a book. All I knew was that he was an activist who shared his experience in Ferguson after the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown.

On the Other Side of Freedom book coverAt some point, I read an OpEd piece Mckesson had written for The Washington Post and, since I live outside of Baltimore, I heard that he had raised money as part of a campaign to become mayor of the city. Despite hearing his name several times, he remained on the periphery of my attention. A few weeks ago, I saw Mckesson in Washington, DC, at the Atlantic Festival. Mary Louise Kelly, a host of All Things Considered on National Public Radio, interviewed him about a book he had written titled On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.

As he was describing some of his experiences and sharing his opinions about activists and protests, I downloaded his book to my Kindle. The next day, I was on a phone call with my dear friend and long-time colleague, Caryn McTighe Musil, and she told me that she had been up since very early morning reading a book that her daughter had sent to her. The book was Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom. As she described what she was reading, she emphasized that Mckesson wrote that “hope was work.” Even as Caryn explained her interpretation of what Mckesson meant, I did not grasp the way he might be connecting hope and work. Then I read the book. OMG!

If I were not reading the book on Kindle, I would run out of tape flags to mark the pages I want to reread:

  • I flagged the pages where Mckesson contrasts and compares faith and hope.
  • I flagged the pages where he reveals the findings of the Mapping Police Violence
  • I flagged the pages where he shares his concept of God in the context of activism.
  • I flagged the pages where he distinguishes between an ally and an accomplice, and on and on.
  • Particularly poignant is the essay about identity and coming out of the quiet; I flagged many of these pages.

This young man who shows up everywhere in his blue vest brings the message for the times we live in. He both deconstructs and enlarges the media sound bites and snapshots of protests to reveal the motivations and sacrifices of those who know the urgency of sounding the alarm for those who have become complacent or have chosen to accept things as they are. Mckesson’s book can inspire by helping readers understand that hope is about the work that needs to be done to create the world we must imagine.

I’m late to the conversation because others have already recognized Mckesson with honors and accolades. This gifted young man is a quintessential leader for our time. Mckesson is no longer on the periphery of my vision and attention. My eyes and attention are locked on him because I think he is the real deal. He writes:

I often think about God in the context of activism as reminding us of our moral courage—of being a compass as we navigate key moral issues, those of good and evil and those of justice. Moral courage is the courage you summoned because you are firmly rooted in the righteousness of the task at hand. (11)

From the essays in this book, I believe that his work is his church. I think that his congregation consists of all the people he meets along the way who are voicing the wrongs and outlining the way toward the right. The essays indicate that his sacrifices are real.

That activists and protests mattered then and now should never be in doubt. Mckesson confirms this for me when he writes that “protest is a precursor to the solution [and] creates space that would otherwise not exist, and forces conversations and topics that have long been ignored into the public sphere.” (122)

I encourage others to read this succinct and brief dispatch filled with words of wisdom. It could change your mind and your life.

Enrollment Management: Integrated from Beginning to End

waiting graduates in cap and gowns - African American student facing camera

Source: Flickr/ via U.S. Department of Education (CC BY 2.0)

Enrollment managers hold an important and key role to helping colleges and universities enhance the student experience. Every institution has them. They are key players not only in helping the institution meet enrollment goals, but graduation goals as well. These professionals share values and accountabilities with faculty and student affairs, as well as every functional area of the college or university. They are, therefore, favorably positioned to help faculty, staff, and administrators provide the return on investment that today’s students expect.

Several years ago, I was to be the commencement speaker at a college. It was a bright sunny day, and there were rows and rows of people as far as I could see. The stage was full of robed dignitaries and student speakers. I was one of the two African Americans on stage – both getting honorary degrees. In addition to my being unnerved by my own audacity in accepting the role of commencement speaker, the other African American who was receiving an honorary degree was none other than the excellent speaker and brilliant astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson! To say that I was anxious is an understatement.

Once the preliminary remarks and introductions were over, students’ names began to be called. As they walked across the stage, I forgot about my own stage fright and began to enjoy the celebration. As each student’s name was called and the happy student walked across the stage to receive the diploma and shake hands with administrators, some were beaming with grins and others were crying tears of joy.  I was so happy for them that my face began to hurt from smiling so broadly for so long.

I noticed that the line that had been going rather swiftly up to the point of shaking hands with the administrators was backed up where students were exiting the stage on my far right. I peered around to see what was happening and saw that, as the students were exiting the stage, an admissions professional was standing where the students descended, smiling, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, and being enthusiastically hugged by many of the graduates. I smiled and thought to myself how right and fitting that the first person students encountered during the critical time of choosing this college was there to congratulate them as they graduated.

The idea of being there at the beginning and at the end makes me recall a conversation I had with a student at this same college who had been told that he should take this college off his list of possibilities for all the usual reasons first-generation students might not attend highly selective colleges. The student, however, left the college on his list and his high school counselor scheduled an appointment at the high school with someone from the Office of Admissions. He was late for the appointment and the admissions director asked him why. Usually reticent to talk about himself, especially with strangers, this simple inquiry from the admissions director opened the door for him to share more about himself than he ever would have expected. He thought his chances were not great for being accepted and, if he were accepted, he knew he could not afford to attend. He couldn’t even afford a trip for a campus visit. To make a long story short, he was accepted, received a scholarship, and received funds to visit the campus. Seeing the campus was love at first sight for this student. But something was bothering him.

He said he hated systems and didn’t want to be just another number in an affirmative action system where he wasn’t really seen for who he was. He said that this feeling was a like a cloud overshadowing all the good that was coming his way.

He told me that, early during his first semester, he had an occasion to see the admissions director who interviewed him at his high school. She remembered him and everything they had talked about. He was amazed that she remembered him, and this made him feel good. Shortly after the conversation with this admissions director, he had an encounter with another director from the admissions office. When the director learned the student’s name, he said with a friendly smile, “Oh, yes, I remember reading your essay.” The student said that he thought, “Wow! Maybe I’m not just a number in a system after all.” The student said that these same admissions directors reached out to him to see how he was doing throughout the semester. He said that their genuine attention was a strong motivator for him to do well because his family was in another country and had no idea what life was like for him as a college student in the United States. I can imagine the long hug at the end of the line during commencement when this student crosses the stage and sees his admissions directors.

So, if you find yourself confounded by how different your incoming class is than previous classes of students, don’t wait for the next popular publication: talk with your colleagues in enrollment management. They can give you information about students who are attending your college or university rather than a generic broad-brush description of a new generation of students.

Enrollment managers, more than anyone else on campus, know why students choose to come to a given college or university. It would serve institutions well, then, if enrollment management staff were significantly integrated within the academic community. We all know that a major reason why students do not persist in college is because their expectations are not met. Congruence between expectations and what students find is what is ultimately called “fit.” We speak of “fit” during the recruitment process, but “fit” is really not determined until the retention process is in play.

Professionals in enrollment management do much more than recruit students and provide a pathway to aid. They share the responsibility for students’ success with every other part of the academic enterprise.

The ‘why’ of becoming a leader

It was not the first time my supervisor accused me of secretly thinking that I could do his job better than he could. He advised me, “You need to practice having a poker face,” often saying that I would surely lose all of my money in an actual game.

Despite little experience as an administrator, my strong references eventually afforded me the opportunity to become an acting administrator. Finally, I would be able to do things my way. Being an administrator felt like the sweet spot for me, and the “leader” designation provided a natural high.

It was not long after landing that dream job as an administrator in my own right that I began to read the faces of those who reported to me. I couldn’t believe that they secretly thought that they could do my job better than me, just as I had thought of my supervisor. This realization made me question whether or not being an administrator really was the right path for me.

In retrospect, one of the changes I made that helped sustain me during the times when I questioned my competence was to become less preoccupied with how others saw me and what they might think of me. I focused like a laser on the roles, goals, and day-to-day habits of our unit in support of students. My focus was so intense that an administrator from another area said that I was a zealot when it came to students. Yes, I was, and I took the comment as a compliment.

Having changed my focus, it became vivid to me that I had previously been preoccupied with simply becoming a leader rather than why I wanted to become a leader. While I had always approached my role with humility, it was naïve arrogance that made me think that I could motivate a staff to see the work of student affairs from my perspective and, in turn, change the way they had always done things.

If you begin to feel as if being an administrator is not for you, give yourself time. Among the lessons I learned during my first year as an administrator was that this is the time when we begin to learn who we are, where we should be, and what we should be doing.

Voices of Three African American Women (Pt. 5 of 5): Exploring Race and Gender Representation

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, early-middle Baby Boomer (BB)

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, middle Gen X-er (X)

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, early Millennial (M)

In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, the following question brought the most passion because I used the term “gift” in regard to separating gender from race:

Nell Painter, well-known historian at Princeton, now retired, went back to school to study art. In an interview about her experience as an older student, she insists that she does not want to stand for anything or be representative of any group. She did not want to have to ask herself, what does this mean for the race or for women? So I ask you, do you think that Black women will ever have the gift of talking about or addressing gender in the absence of race?

Phrasing the question in this manner was a way of imagining some future utopia where rights and choices of identity could be made by individual human beings rather than by the characteristics and qualities others choose to define us. The reality, as Eboni says, is that the “confluence of race and gender is complex.” Jackie’s comment about not wanting the luxury of separating gender and race is echoed by Tangela who clearly sees that as Black women we will never clearly see which of these identifiers is causing our experience. To smooth over one or the other is a disservice. It’s encouraging to see that all three of these women are positive role models to help future generations to connect race and gender in their self-concept as they define them.


Full Transcript for Representation Section / Conclusion

Gwen (Traditional / Silent – T/S): Nell Painter, the well-known historian at Princeton, now retired, went back to school to study art. In an interview about her experience as an older student, she insists that she does not want to stand for anything or be representative of any group. She did not want to have to ask herself, “What does this mean for the race or for women?” So, I ask you, “Do you think that Black women will ever have the gift of talking about or addressing gender in the absence of race?” And I know Eboni touched on this before. So, will we ever be able to talk about ourselves as women without having to say African American, or Black, women?

Tangela (M): I think a woman could, but I think it would be a disservice. We are layered, we have multiple identities. So, I am a Millennial. I am a woman. I am Black. I was born to a teenage mother in Arkansas. Right? And so those are all things that make me who I am. I would not want to detract from any one of those identities to just be a woman. Because, what I think every day, I am not sure at which avenue I am experiencing… Am I experiencing this because I’m a woman? Am I experiencing this because I’m Black? Am I experiencing this because of my education, who I’m married to, because I wear a size 9 shoe? And because we are not able to distill which of those layers affect us, I personally would not want to do that. I don’t actually think that’s a positive. And, I think it’s interesting that we are asking that of Black women when, I think – Gwen, you touched on it earlier – when we say “women,” there’s a hidden modifier there. When we say “American,” there’s a hidden modifier there. That word is “White.” And, so, I would be much more comfortable if people identified who they were, and so then we could have a really honest conversation. I’m totally comfortable with someone saying, you know, “As a Chinese woman,” “As a Polish woman,” and I would be perfectly comfortable saying, “As a Black woman, here’s my experience.” I think trying to smooth over our differences in order to highlight our similarities does us all a disservice.

Jackie (BB): I have to agree wholeheartedly with Tangela. I say, people who tell me they’re colorblind bother me because I want you to see all of me. I want you to see an older, African American woman who has the experiences and education and activities in her lifestyle that I have, and I want you to see all of that when you see me. I don’t know about people who say that they don’t want this to have any meaning for themselves in terms of their gender or their race because it always will, in my mind. I don’t think we will have the luxury of addressing it, nor do I want it. I agree with Tangela – nor do I want that luxury. I want you to see all of me. And, so, whether I like it or not, am I representing both my race and my gender when I do things? Absolutely. And I’m okay with that.

Eboni (X): Yeah, if we were doing this as a video, I would look like a bobblehead at this point. I’m all up in the Amen corner ready to be, like, hallelu, high five, fist bump, you know, give a pound, all of that.  Because, I think part of what was happening here – what both sisters are puttin’ down and I’m picking up – is that we have this very kind of selective way of questioning gender, as well as its importance in connection to the representation of race. And there’s, you know, one way that dominance functions is by remaining unexamined. And, so, to Tangela’s point, you know, when you have someone affirm themselves and say, “I am an African American woman,” “I’m a Black woman,” “I’m an Asian woman,” “I’m a this,” “I’m a that,” and sometimes that’s met with, “But we’re all women.” Mmmmmm….. Yeah… That is the common denominator. We are all women. However, there are differences, and there are nuances to that experience, and I think that, when we, you know, as Tangela said, the modifier here – the elephant in the room – is that when we talk about these gendered experiences and that we’re all women, you know, it’s coming from this presumption of there being the same access to formal education, or that there’s not the same kind of exclusion from various, you know, aspects of social life. That there’s this erasure and cultural amnesia that the Women’s Movement actually thought about us. That we were afterthoughts, at most. It wasn’t about the emancipation of, you know, most Black women. This was about, primarily, promoting the need of middle-class White women. And, so, there’s a way in which people want to take race off the table as if to say that somehow, when we talk about being women, and in the company of our sisters, that it’s all about gender and all things are equal, but, again, it is not. Race only exacerbates that gendered experience in terms of what we talk about with sexism and glass ceilings and the like. And so, to me, while gender is salient for all women, right? – it shapes our identity, you know, it touches on so many different facets of our experiences, but there’s no way of getting around how those are also filtered by being both female and African American. That there’s a confluence. That, whether, as Jackie said, we like it or not, that confluence is complex and layered and complicated, and actually, again, exacerbates the various forms of oppression that we feel, hence, “Ain’t I a woman?” Because there has been this historical disadvantaging of women, but women in these Black bodies. Right? So that there’s a way in which we are conscious of and more handicapped by racial oppression, and that sex oppression or sexism is not the ultimate ism for us – it doesn’t trump all isms.

Jackie (BB): Gwen, I want to give you a very personal example, and the three of you may have heard me say this privately. When I took my last full-time position, I was asked by members of the organization, “How do we describe you to our membership?” And, so, I had to take a deep breath and swallow, and my answer was – and I can’t take credit for founding this phrase, but I picked up on it – “When my mother and father knew that my mother was pregnant, they didn’t know if she was having a boy or a girl, but they knew that she was having an African American child. And so, I expect you to describe you to your membership as an African American woman.” And that was important to me. And that stopped a whole lot of questioning, too, by the way. But it was important that I said that was important to me because they stopped asking me those silly questions.

Gwen (T/S): Good. Well, it’s an interesting what you all are saying. I agree with you right now with the intersection of race and gender, we don’t want to erase any of them. And I was looking at it as a gift if we could talk about ourselves as women in the future, but I think you’re correct – as long as we’ve got this black skin in this country or in this world, I think you’re correct. I don’t think there will ever be a time when women of color, or Black women in particular, will be able to talk about just being women. But, coming off of Sojourner Truth, that’s why I was posing that. …

One of our purposes for this interview is to demonstrate that while there may be solidarity of opinion regarding some aspects of the question around gender and race among African American women, we do see the multifaceted perspectives and encourage others to encourage against homogenizing our viewpoints because, despite shared experiences of being African American women, differences across generations do have impact and should be respected. We ultimately hope that the next generation of women will not have to address equity issues with the same urgency as in the past and as we do now. So, I would like to thank all of you for taking the time, for talking about these questions.

Voices of Three African American Women (Pt. 3): #MeToo, Identity, & Intersectionality

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, early-middle Baby Boomer (BB)

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, middle Gen X-er (X)

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, early Millennial (M)

In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, I asked for responses to the following:

As African American women, we may question whether or not the #MeToo Movement is an inclusive tag and a unifying movement for all women. When Time wrote an extensive piece on the women who had accused Harvey Weinstein of being a predator, they showed photos and gave names of 25 women, and none appeared to be women of color. As Issa Rae wrote in her book Misadventure of an Awkward Black Girl, “The universal gender classification ‘girl’ is white. That is the norm, and that is what is acceptable.”

So, I’m going to ask you to respond to this: It is widely believed that Sojourner Truth in an extemporaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 declared, “Ain’t I a woman?” How far have Black women come from having to declare or ask a question about our womanhood? Have gender challenges gotten better through the generations, or are they just as difficult or harder now than those of the 20th century and early 21st century challenges?

Thinking specifically about the #MeToo Movement and the idea of Sojourner Truth’s supposedly having said, “Ain’t I a woman?” how do you see those challenges right now? Is it getting any better, or is it just different? Might we be able to take this possible moment as a way to broaden perspectives and discussion to include all women?

Takeaways

I want to thank Tangela in framing her response for first reminding us that the original #MeToo Movement was started about a decade ago by Tarana Burke, a Black woman seeking to give voice to young Black girls who were experiencing sexual violence. Looking at gender challenges through the lens of a #MeToo Movement now largely associated with White women and privilege, then, Jackie, Eboni, and Tangela spoke to different kinds of bright lines, including not only race, but class. There was a recognition of a hierarchy of challenges that Women of Color face, especially those who are not considered part of the professional class. Priorities for women of color include discrimination based on race and, until this is recognized, the #MeToo Movement in its current form may not speak to Women of Color, especially African American women who have struggles on top of struggles.

Eboni spoke to the conflicting role social media plays – at once creating a space in which Black women are besieged upon and find connectedness and a sense of belonging. This presents another space in which Black women must negotiate the idea of self, combating age-old tropes and stereotypes. Jackie added to this idea, noting her generation’s frustration that these stereotypical images that persist fail to offer a nuanced image of “Black women doing the kinds of things that the Sojourner Truths of the world have done.”


Full Transcript for #MeToo Section

Gwen (Traditional/Silent – T/S): As African American women, we may question whether or not the #MeToo Movement is an inclusive tag and a unifying movement for all women. So, when Time wrote an extensive piece on the women who had accused Harvey Weinstein of being a predator, they showed photos and gave names of 25 women, and none appeared to be women of color.

And, if you are familiar with Issa Rae, the creator of that HBO series, Insecure, she wrote in that book she wrote about the Misadventure of an Awkward Black Girl, she wrote that, “The universal gender classification “girl” [and we can say women] is white. That is the norm, and that is what is acceptable.”

So, I’m going to ask you to respond to this: It is widely believed that Sojourner Truth in an extemporaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 declared, “Ain’t I a woman?” How far have Black women come from having to declare or ask a question about our womanhood? Have gender challenges gotten better through the generations, or are they just as difficult or harder now than those of the 20th century and early 21st century challenges?

And I know all of you have touched on that a little bit, but can you be very specific about that now, thinking about the #MeToo Movement and the idea of Sojourner Truth’s supposedly having said, “Ain’t I a woman?” So, is it getting any better, is it just different? So, how do you see those challenges right now?

Jackie (BB): I want to follow-up on what Eboni was just saying. I think it’s different based upon our generational activities and our generational role. I think, Gwen, when you and I were developing as professional Black women, a lot of the things we went through, we kept quiet. You didn’t have a social network to discuss those things with. You may have had one or two girlfriends that you shared some of the things that were happening, but you didn’t have a social network to share with. Nowadays, younger women have platforms or networks where they can discuss openly or ask questions openly – we didn’t even dare ask the question of one another or of ourselves. Whereas, they now have a different kind of opportunity to do that. I don’t think they’re any better …I think they’re different because they have the opportunity to articulate the challenges of being a Black professional woman in a more open space. Sometimes it’s accepted, and sometimes, it’s not, but at least the conversation is being held now, whereas, in our time – in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s – we were not having this kind of conversation.

Gwen (T/S): So, that’s the main difference, you’re saying – the challenges are similar but the ability to talk about them with other women makes a difference.

Jackie (BB): Absolutely.

Gwen (T/S): Tangela, what do you think?

Tangela (M): So, I always try to give credit where credit is due. The #MeToo Movement was started about a little over a decade ago by a Black woman. Her name is Tarana Burke. The movement was I won’t say hijacked, but co-opted by the majority, and that is why we are seeing the #MeToo Movement being primarily about women with white faces. Ms. Burke created the movement to give voice to young Black girls who were experiencing sexual violence. To that end, I definitely believe that the challenges between what Ms. Woods and her colleagues experienced and what I experience today are night and day differently – just from their stories, alone. That’s not to say that there aren’t still challenges… I think this is where the intersectionality comes in, right? There are certain subsets of women that have to deal with different things than even we professionals do. You have women working multiple jobs, trying to feed their children, and their challenges may be the same throughout the generations. I think the professional women have an additional platform, have louder voices – given both our education, our support role and the people that are supporting us – and I would just like to say there’s no “one-size-fits-all” for the challenge, no matter when it happened generationally. We just have to be mindful that even though we’re all at the table, that there may be many of our sisters that aren’t here yet.

Gwen (T/S): Thank you. Do you have thoughts, Eboni?

Eboni (X): There’s some dualities that we have, right? There’s a way in which social media presents an opportunity for Black women to be besieged on, and then there’s also ways in which social media, you know, illustrates its mixed blessing of it not being that, but being the venue to create that third space for connectedness, for a sense of belonging, for Black women being able to demonstrate nurturing and loving on one another in terms of our own well-being, you know, virtually. And, so, I think there’s a role that social media plays in how Black women kind of negotiate this idea of self and the extent to which we are engaging with it, particularly in very gendered, race-related ways. Right? So, how we see ourselves and how we use the medium in the way of the hashtags created, or the blogs that we’re doing, or this podcast, or just different venues by which, again, it can be a vehicle to contribute to our well-being and then, it, you know, can sometimes be a vehicle where we have to be very protective and think about how it could erode our self-esteem and our mental health and, you know, what kind of endorsement does it give in terms of perpetuating stereotypes that, again, with that trope and archetype of “the strong Black woman,” as if we can’t be vulnerable, that we can’t have certain expressions, so that it can be both liberating and confining, I think, when we think about what social media has brought and how we interact with it and are seen and presented through it.

Jackie (BB): We’re having a very intellectual conversation, but one of my frustrations is Reality TV as it relates to what happens in social media. Reality TV still projects Black women as being strong, but also being bossy and as being very outspoken and very showy in terms of physical presence and our mental presence, and so forth. And there are Black women that do that, and that’s alright, but there are also Black women who have very serious, intellectual conversations – like we’re trying to have – and we don’t see that portrayed as often, and that frustrates the heck out of me.  And I think all of us can be both those women sometimes, but, in our professional space, we choose to do a different type of thing, and it just…it irritates me to no end to see that the majority world still sees us as being the Sapphire Black women and they don’t necessarily see other Black women doing the kinds of things that the Sojourner Truths of the world have done, as well as the Sapphires of the world have done. We don’t see both sides, and that’s frustrating to my generation, in particular.

Voices of Three African American Women (Pt. 2): Advice for Women of Color Facing Double Jeopardy

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, early-middle Baby Boomer (BB)

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, middle Gen X-er (X)

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, early Millennial (M)

In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, the generational differences among the three African American women were perhaps most evident in the responses to the following question:

I’ve spoken with several women of color who have been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals without the power of authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As successful Black women, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?

The Silent, or Traditional, Generation and the Baby Boomers were the first to have the doors opened to more opportunities for education and careers. We were entering a world in which the climate was overtly racist and sexist. We knew that we were always working against negative stereotypes. While we could never be fully prepared for the challenges we would face, we understood that we would have to stand out among the best; that we could not be tardy; that we could not be unkempt; that we would have to speak clearly; and that we would have to always be seen as giving our best efforts. We knew that we would not be given a second chance if we failed. I’d like to believe that, as Jackie said, we no longer have to be the smartest person in the room.

Millennials, such as Tangela, regardless of race, having not experienced being shut out of opportunities on a broad and overt scale, do not feel “gratitude” for being “allowed” in the game, seeing it, instead, as just as much their right to be where they are as anyone else’s. They demand justice and equity in treatment. They want reasonableness in expectations, and they have strategies to create some balance between their personal well-being and their career success, as you can hear in the following clip.


As a Gen Xer, Eboni understood both the age-old admonition of having to work harder and that the generations coming along after would not be influenced by the same kind of thinking. Having found herself in the middle of these generational shifts, as the discussion delved deeper into different strategies, Eboni offered thoughts on racialized role strain, noting that as we consider whether things have gotten better or if it is just as difficult or harder now that there are nuances to the persistent challenges that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation.


Full Transcript for “Advice” Question

Gwen (Traditional/ Silent Generation – T/S): I know you’ll be able to relate to this because you’ve all had very illustrious careers, but I’ve spoken with several women of color who’ve been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals, but they haven’t been given the power or authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion, fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As a successful Black woman, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?

Jackie (BB): Gwen, this is Jackie. That question is almost like you took a page out of my life, because it definitely describes many of the things I’ve gone through. My response will be evident based on the old adage that our mothers and our grandmothers used to give us that we had to be twice as good in order to be considered relevant. And, at least from my generation’s point of view, I think that is so important and so relevant – that, in my career, I heard that I had to be twice as good in order to be accepted at the table or to be considered as someone equal to the rest of the people at the table. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many of the young women who I’ve mentored or developed friendships with say that it still applies to them, as well, but I know that for my generation, that was extremely relevant and important. And we were told to work hard, and I don’t think we had the same filters that the young women have now in terms of drawing back and – doing you best, but – not necessarily overwhelming yourself with so much hard work and trying to be the best at the table.

A new phrase that I use on a regular basis – and I didn’t develop it – to young women is that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And, so, I think it’s critically important that you show that you can be a strong participant, and that you’re good, but that you don’t have to show and demonstrate that you’re the smartest person in the room.

Tangela (M): So, the question is like multi-fold to me. I would say that a woman going through that should do a few things, and the first is to right-size the task. What that means to me is having a conversation about the extent and limits of your authority for even accepting an assignment – and getting it in writing, and then taking the temperature of the person that is delegating you that authority, so that you have the right bandwidth to do what you feel your responsibility is, but also understanding that responsibility is the ability to do the work. And multiple people can do the work; accountability is monitoring those folks responsible, and authority is having the power to make decisions for those who are accountable and are responsible. And so, any one of those levers can be pulled so that whomever is doing that work is more meaningful. And the last point is self-care. Know who your support is. Be vocal in reaching out to them. Ms. Woods here is definitely mine. I’ve had many a hard day where the job felt like it was hell, and so she reached me to call and I needed that reset.  The answer I think is two-fold: we’re talking about your emotional health and your ability.

Gwen (T/S): Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Eboni (X): So, I guess my response would be, we’ve seen some improvements, but overall, our positioning could still stand for improvement, right? So, by that I mean, if there’s a way in which oftentimes, when women ascend to leadership positions, in particular Black women, that there aren’t significant investments in advancing support and rewards for our hard work and commitment, so that we have ambitions that have – resources that have not kept pace with those ambitions. And, I think sometimes that, in part because of these age-old tropes of Black women as being strong and inheriting situations when we do say we want to lead, we’re given, you know, the Hail Mary – the devastating context of “turn it around,” you know, “it’s on its last leg” and has the least resources. And so, I think that there’s much more to do where the rhetoric follows the reality of what we have in terms of a commitment that, in some form, in terms of the value we bring, advancement and support that is needed, and the resources so that we’re not having to lead and also be in unchecked situations of resource dependency.

Gwen (T/S): That’s something that I hear resonating throughout your responses that, you know, as Jackie began about working harder, and Tangela’s talking about right-sizing the task, which is not usually the right size, and then that idea of turning it around – so many women I’ve talked with…they come in and they’ve been in horrible situations and they’re asked to make it work. They don’t want to turn down an opportunity. What would you advise these women? I think Tangela said about right-sizing the responsibility. How do you go about right-sizing that?

Jackie (BB): Gwen, I need to interject something here, please. As part of Tangela’s statement, she was saying that you need to get agreement on your topic, or your task and your goals, and then get it in writing, and you don’t have that luxury in most situations. When you report to a board of trustees or you report to a board of people, they’re not going to put it in writing for you. If you report to a governing body, they’re not going to put that in writing. And so that’s a very difficult thing – you can’t require that or ask that of them, because it’s not going to happen that way. I had several organizations that I was the titular head of the organization, and yet the governing bodies that I reported to basically said to me, “These are the goals of the organization.” One of the things that helps you self-direct, if you will, is to develop your own set of goals and present them to whoever you report to or who you are responsible for. And that makes a difference. So, I was able to, in a couple of instances, submit my own goals and talk about how they were achievable in that space, and get them to agree to my goals, rather than waiting for them to give me goals, because that makes a big, big difference. So often we sit and wait to be given our jobs, and sometimes we have to submit our own goals, and we have to do it in a caring and submissive way. You’re proactive, but you’re proactive not necessarily in an aggressive way. And so, a couple of times I’ve had to say, “As I’ve studied this organization – or as I look at where it’s been as an organization and where you want it to go – these are some of the goals that I think we might want to achieve to get there.” And then that starts a discussion in a very, very different way, and you can get agreement then on most of those things. But, to get them to put it in writing – eh, that’s not gonna happen…

Tangela (M): And, so, I think you misunderstood me. It’s not that they should put it in writing; it’s that you should have your own plan – right? – and when you have your own plan, you should be able to articulate your own plan and your vision, so that you get buy-in from both the top and the bottom.

Jackie (BB): We’re in agreement there.

Gwen (T/S): Right. Well., you know, this is something. When Jackie talked about doing this in a way that may not be as assertive as you would want to be, it goes back to what Tangela said about the messenger. There may be some people who could just come in and say, you know, “This is what I think needs to be done,” but, being a woman, being an African American woman, that may not be possible, so there are times when we have to, you know, be a little less assertive.

Jackie (BB): Oh, absolutely.

Eboni (X): That’s a lot, right?

Gwen (T/S): I know, I’m thinking, “Do I really believe it?” I haven’t done it well…

Eboni (X): Well, you know, I was thinking about this whole notion of racialized role strain. That there are ways in which there’s a representation for the group that we have, and that’s minimally two-fold, right? It’s for the race, it’s for the gender, you know, as women… And, so, reconciling what our various tools are in terms of the different roles and the different hats that we wear or roles that we have, and how much of that, in many ways, can provoke or produce kind of a racialized role strain – or at least that’s been my experience in some of what I have seen bubble up in some of the research that I have done. And, so, when I think about this question of, “Have we gotten better through the generations, or is it just as difficult or harder now?” in some ways it is, and in some ways, it’s become more complex. I know, this is probably a conversation for later, but as we think about some of the contrasting differences between the 20th and the 21st century in terms of challenges for women, and namely Black women, this whole social media piece – that’s a whole ‘nother beast, you know. And particularly for Black women in terms of cross-sections of Black women. So, not just professional Black women and women that lead, but I think about the imprint that it has on impressionable youth and Black girls, and what may be strengthened and what actually may be chipped away at in the way that they see themselves and what their worth and their value is, and who they can be and what they can be and what they should achieve. So, I think, it’s intergenerational – the challenges – but as we all face the challenges, there are nuances to them that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation. And, so, that there’s’ a different cross to bear that my daughters have that was just not even front-of-mind for me at their age as a teenager, or that my mom, when I was in my formative years, that just wasn’t on her radar that she didn’t have to contend with because of the time.

Voices of Three African American Women on Gender Across Generations

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, former executive director, American Association of University Women (AAUW); Jackie served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards. Jackie is in the early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Eboni falls in the middle of Generation X.

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts; Tangela directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia, and also is a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago. Tangela is an early Millennial.

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate an inter-generational conversation on gender with three African American women. The overriding assumption for the dialogue was that participants would represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions posed, exploring, in particular, commonalities and differences in opinion regarding gender across generations.I will be sharing different parts of the conversation over the coming weeks, as well as some of my takeaways. All of the dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students.


Introductory Question and Audio Clip

I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?

[The above clip is taken from Tangela’s answer to this question.]

Takeaways

These three generations of African American women have experienced both the positive and negative impacts of gender on their career journey. Strikingly, they did not separate gender from race. Jackie Woods spoke of a “combination.” Eboni Zamani-Gallaher found it hard to “decouple” race and gender. Tangela Feemster references both race and gender when she gives an example of the message and the messenger.

In my personal experience, when you don’t have a commonality of either race or sex with the receiver, it’s difficult for the receiver to hear and acknowledge the message you bring. Women, in general, complain about the phenomena of having their comments ignored until repeated by a male who is heard and often praised for his insights. During my career journey, when my comments were not recognized in a meeting or when I was making a speech, I used to say, “they can’t hear me for looking at me.” It was as if the people with whom I was speaking could not hold in their minds three things: woman; black; meaningful.


Full Transcript for Introductory Section

Our participants today, in addition to myself – I’m Gwen Dungy, executive director emeritus of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education –

  • Jacqueline Woods, former executive director for the American Association of University Women – she says she’s in semi-retirement. She’s served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards.
  • Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts. She directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia. She’s also a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago.

The overriding assumption for this dialogue is that participants will represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions I will pose. In particular, we want to explore where the commonalities and differences in opinion are regarding gender across generations.Now, all of our dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I would expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students. When we think about who students are on college campuses, it’s generally agreed that there are five generations on campus today:

  • The Traditionalist or Silent (T/S) Generation are those born between approximately 1925 and 1946;
  • The Baby Boomers (BB), born 1946 to 1964;
  • Generation X (X), born between 1965 and 1980;
  • The Millennials (M) – sometimes called Generation Y – born around 1980 through the 1990s or later; and
  • Generation Z (Z), born late-1990s to 2010.

Now, notwithstanding the arbitrariness of these labels, it would be helpful to know within which generation we all might be classified. Now, I would be in the category of the Traditionalist or Silent Generation, and my birth year falls on the tail end of these years. So, Jackie, will you begin by sharing in which category your birth would fall and is it on the early, middle, or tail end of that range?

Jackie (BB): Okay, I’m in the Baby Boomer group; I would be in early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.

Gwen (T/S): Eboni, could you say where you are?

Eboni (X): I’m a Generation X –

Gwen (T/S): Generation X? And would you be on the early, middle, or tail end of that?

Eboni (X): – in the middle

.Gwen (T/S): And Tangela…

Tangela (M): I’m an early Millennial.

Gwen (T/S): Okay, great…this is great. I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?

Jackie (BB): It has impact on my career at every stage of my career. I definitely think that many of the opportunities and challenges that I experienced as a professional – that my gender had implications for them. And so, promotions that I received, advisory groups, boards, activities that I participated in, my gender played a heavy role in that occurring. And I think I had many positive experiences because of my gender, but I also think that I had some challenges because of my gender, as well.

Gwen (T/S): So, do the positive experiences outweigh the challenges?

Jackie (BB:  Yes, I guess in many ways, but they were equal at certain times in my career. I’d have a positive experience one day, and a negative one the next, so…

Gwen (T/S): So, how did you determine that it was about gender?

Jackie (BB): Well, in my experiences, and because of where I fall in the categories that you read, I think mine was both gender and race. I think it was a combination of both that played heavily into both my positive and my challenges.

Gwen (T/S): Mm hmm. Okay. Well, thank you, Jackie. Either Eboni or Tangela?

Eboni (X): Okay, this is Eboni. Some of my experiences – you know, it’s interesting, because I feel that gender has always been salient. I know some people who, they think about their gender some of the time or often; I think about it all the time, every day, and I have a hard time decoupling it from other aspects of myself. And, so, every day, all day, I am filtering and experiencing everything as a Black woman. I think that some of the ways in which my successes or the things that have affected me positively or negatively, with regard to gender, they really come up where they’re “even-Steven.” So, there’s been some things where I’ve had messages that suggest that there are certain spaces I shouldn’t occupy, or there’s doubt regarding my capability, but on the other hand, I have been positively fed and fueled, and see that intersectionality as a strength that emboldens me to navigate and to persist.

Gwen (T/S): This is great. Thank you, Eboni. Tangela?

Tangela (M): I would say that there have been both positive and negative implications, but the overarching that’s hitting them both is sometimes it’s the messenger and not the message. So, there are instances where I’m the appropriate messenger and it’s well-received and it’s positive, and there are times when I am not the appropriate messenger, even though my message is correct, and that is going to be negative. And so, sometimes those instances happen daily, sometimes in a specific meeting, and sometimes they’re overarching in my career. But, every day, I get to do this job, so I’m going to go with positive for the overwhelming impact.

Gwen (T/S): Can you talk a little bit more about the message and the messenger?

Tangela (M): Sure. In my current space, I’m in health care. And so, historically, the folks that are walking into legislative offices have been “pale, male, and stale” – and I did not invent that phrase; a NASA director created it in 1992 when he was trying to increase diversity and inclusion in that agency. But, lots of legislators have told me personally how refreshing it is to have not only a young woman, but a young, Black woman to come in to their offices to talk about health care issues. And, so, you’re having them hear a different messenger and receive it differently than who might have been historically in their office discussion those issues with them.

It’s Complicated…

I was listening to Neil Pasricha, host of the Three Books podcast out of Toronto, interview American author Gretchen Rubin about the three books that had been most formative in her life. I was surprised to hear that her number one book was the same as mine. Unlike me, she was unabashedly enthusiastic to share that the book that had had the most impact on her as she developed was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Her enthusiasm caused me to think about how I have been embarrassed to let people know that the Franklin book had a profound influence on me as I was growing up.

Considering the optics, sensibilities, and expectations of being black in the United States, if asked to name a book that helped shaped the character of who I am, I might be tempted to name a book by and about a woman, at minimum, and optimally by and about a black woman who is known for her race work.

On one occasion, as an adult, when asked about a book that had the greatest impact on me as a child, I revealed that the book was the Benjamin Franklin autobiography. I expected that some would find my response humorous. Instead, I was questioned about why I would choose a book about the life of a racist.

Whether or not he was a racist is not the purpose of my comments here. The podcast and the mention of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin brought to mind how some AHANA [African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American] students today feel burdened by the expectation that they must be motivated and act according to their perceived identity group.

Some students say that if they are identified as AHANA students, there is an expectation that they socialize primarily with other AHANA students even if they feel that their experiences and their preferences are more similar to other students. They say that they feel pressure to be on the same page politically as their identity group. They say it’s hard to find their niche and risk being judged no matter what they do.

In one of my conversations with an African American student, the student seemed to agonize in attempts to explain the difficulty of feeling free to be an individual in a diverse and politically divided community. After several thoughtful pauses and seemingly at a loss to describe the depth of feelings, the student gave up and said,  “It’s complicated.”