Author Archives: gwendungy

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.”

Allowing Room for New Growth

When I arrived as Dean at this community college, the staff surprised me with a corn plant as a welcome gift. It was a tiny little thing that, over the years, grew to over seven feet tall, nearly touching the ceiling. I loved the plant both because my colleagues gave it to me and because it was so hardy and beautiful. During one winter, I was surprised to see that the tips of the leaves had begun to turn brown, and brown and yellow spots appeared intermittently throughout the leaf structure.

As the winter progressed, the spots became more prominent and the plant looked as if it were not going to survive. Despite my inexperience in resuscitating plants, I became more attentive to my corn plant. I changed the size of the pot to allow the roots to spread; I put fertilizer on the plant for the first time; and I watered it when it seemed to need it instead of when I just happened to think about watering it.

cornplantInterestingly, as unsightly as the plant became, it continued to grow tall. One day, while leaning in close to water the plant, I noticed something next to the bottom of the stem just barely on top of the soil. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a tiny shoot. What amazed me was that it had the shape of a fully developed corn plant. It was the tiniest corn plant one could imagine.

While I continued to attend to the ailing larger plant, within months, the tiny shoot grew to nearly half the size of the original plant. The new plant was hardy with thick green leaves. In the meantime, the original plant began to bend its stem away from the new plant. This allowed room for the new plant to spread its leaves in new growth. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed that the original plant had nurtured a new version of itself. I thought to myself that this was a perfect example of a transmutation.

What I think is happening in higher education today is like the transmutation of my corn plant. To some observers, higher education seems impaired and not as healthy as it once was. Yet, it continues to grow because of grant-funded research, exemplary scholarship by star faculty, increased endowments generated by gifted fundraisers, and increased numbers of students seeking a degree as a way to move a step up on the economic ladder.

If higher education leans in closely, as I did when I discovered the tiny new plant, it will see that it must recast its role to actually and truly put students at the center of the enterprise. Putting students at the center requires meeting students where they are today. Where they are today includes expecting that their unique place in history and their stage in development will be respected. While they share some commonalities with all students, they will not allow the system to paint them with the same brush.

Common among today’s students is the fact that they are learners, as well as producers of knowledge. Therefore, they want the kind of partnership with colleges and universities that will enable them to negotiate a better match between their personal goals and their desire to be activist citizens in the current social movement.

Colleges and universities can learn, and will, like the dying corn plant, know how to nurture its rebirth by bending away from some of its practices and traditions in order to become congruent with the needs of a new culture that is demanding something different.

Outlets for addressing psychic violence

You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.

Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.

When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.

The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”

There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.

As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.

My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.

After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.

In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:

Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.

Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.

After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.

Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.

Use Your Words

The poisonous pollination of college and university campuses by purveyors of hate speech can cause administrators angst. Determining how best to strike a balance between allowing the free flow of ideas while rejecting the racism inherent in the mere presence of such communicators is making the work of college administrators one of the most stressful jobs in the professions.

If we are not diligent about preserving the value of ongoing dialogue, in a very short period of time, we will become uncomfortable in our own skins questioning every gesture we see and deciphering every word we hear. Despite the skittish times in which we live and the temptation to try not to be seen or heard, we must heed the mother’s advice to her child: “Use Your Words.”

Reflections on Adult Learners from the Jersey Shore

Children were everywhere! Toddlers were digging holes in the sand, pre-schoolers were building sand castles, babies were getting their diapers changed, and most of the children were racing out to meet the waves.

As I sat next to my husband in a low-slung canvas chair under a bright orange umbrella enjoying the exquisite beauty of the Jersey Shore, I marveled at how these children are completely fearless and comfortable in this environment. They are comfortable because they have been coming to the beach since before they could remember, and many learned to swim before they could walk.

Being near the ocean during the summer months is as natural to these children as riding bikes in their neighborhood. Being close to the ocean is not natural for me. I was 23 years old before I felt wet sand between my toes. Although I’m a swimmer now, I don’t venture into the ocean to swim, not even close to shore. I sit and I watch.

Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners

If you want to better understand the needs of adult learners and how to effectively meet them, I recommend a NASPA publication funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation and supported by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates: A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners, edited by Marguerite McGann Culp and Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy.

Students who see college as part of a continuum, a natural progression of what is expected for their educational career, are like these children who grow up going to the beach – or “down the Shore” in New Jersey. By contrast, those who decide to attend college as adult learners may feel more like “watchers,” never quite comfortable in a college environment. Comfort level, however, is just one of the challenges facing adult learners. These learners can feel like outsiders taking a chance on college.

In addition to beautiful beaches, New Jersey also is home to Atlantic City, the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Beaches and casinos! What more can one ask for from a single state? Just for fun, my husband and I drove north to Atlantic City one evening. After relaxing on the beach for hours, I just wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to experience what the advertisements promised. I wanted to try my luck.

Entering the casinos, I could not tell one from the other, either by sound, appearance, or ways to gamble. My eyes were dazzled by the colorful lights; my ears were bombarded by the pings, ringing bells, and R2-D2 sounds of the blinking machines; and I was entranced by the spins of the roulette wheels. It had been a while since I was in a casino not attached to an airport, and as I wandered through eyeing the machines and the people, I definitely felt out of time and place.

I was tentative and hesitant about sitting on one of the stools facing the slot machines. It seemed that these spaces were for real gamblers who knew what they were doing. The spots in front of the machines were not for a fish out of water like me.

When I finally took a position in front of one of the noisy blinking machines, I remembered that the slot machines used to jokingly be called “one-armed bandits.” This time, I didn’t see any machines with one arm. The machines are so technologically advanced, I don’t know if they are even called slot machines any more.

I had to push a “HELP” button to see how to begin playing the machines. The “HELP” button was not much help, so I just put my money in the place for bills and pushed some buttons. The few times in the past when I played the slot machines, I used to be thrilled to see the three cherries straight across because that meant I had won something. I guess these cheap thrills are no longer available. Even when I had three of a kind of something on these machines, it was not enough for me to win. I needed five of a kind or more!

As I looked around at those who appeared to know what they were doing, I knew that the thrill I had hoped to get from being where the action was supposed to be was not real. It was just an illusion for an outsider like me. After feeding the hungry, blinking, groaning monster $7.00, my winnings totaled $0.53. One does not have to be good at math to know that this was not a good return on my money.

Just as the casinos dazzle potential gamblers with how much they could win by playing the games, our colleges and universities spend a lot of money on appealing to the dreams of prospective students. For me, the casino experience was a diversion. For most adult learners, college is no diversion – these learners are motivated by a desire for self-improvement that could potentially change their lives.

Just as I was dazzled by the many lights and sounds, adult learners may be confused by the array of opportunities found on a college’s website. And as I could not tell one casino from another, they might not be able to discern the quality or fit of a particular college. Just as I had no idea how to play the games, adult learners tend not to know how the bureaucratic process of higher education works. Just as I was looking for the one-armed bandits of yesteryear, they may be looking for something that no longer exists.

The “HELP” button on the machine did not enlighten me. I wonder if the service equivalents to the slot machine “HELP” button at colleges and universities are better at meeting the needs of adult learners. Adult learners are putting their money into the game of college and hoping they will get back more than they wagered.