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.
During 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:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
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.
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.
In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, all of the dialogue participants were connected to education in some manner. The expectation, then, is that responses would resonate with students and those who work with students. To that end, I asked the following question directly related to student activism on campus today:
In a political climate where students take matters into their own hands, what do you see as critical for them to know about the risks and rewards of activism in their future careers? What difference do you think gender will make?
As the person still working directly on a higher education campus, Eboni’s is the first voice heard in the above clip, with a question from Jackie. The clip closes with Tangela’s observations.
Responses to this question clearly recognize that student activism is “cyclical and long,” as Tangela notes. Jackie asks if students know their history to inform their present and future. Eboni sees all kinds of students — those who are “grounded in understanding, as well as those who live only in the present.”
The Silent or Traditional (S/T) and the Baby Boomer generations on campus may see the rolling back of progress in the current climate of overt racist groups influencing students. Organizational and environmental characteristics of colleges and universities remain critical today, as they were when the doors began to open to provide more opportunities for all students. Current student activists, as those in previous generations, realize that they have to look to themselves for support because often the seats of power in academe are still occupied by people who do not understand, or do not care to support them in, their struggle.
Full Transcript for Activism Section
Gwen (T/S): Let’s talk about students on campus. As you know, students are quite active today in going after what they want. They don’t trust people to take care of them, as a lot of us didn’t trust people way back when to take care of us. So, what would you say the risks and rewards are for activism and these students’ future careers and, is there a difference related to – why don’t we say – gender and race if you’re an activist right now?
Jackie (BB): I’d like to hear Eboni’s answer, because she’s still actively on campus.
Eboni (X): Uh, sure. You know, I think that, particularly, kind of post-2016 elections, we’re seeing increasing numbers of students of all stripes, but particularly on the heels of Black Lives and Black Minds Matter, kind of post-Mike Brown and any number of us folks who have died at the hands of – unarmed – and have died at the hand of – and the Say Her Name – right? I mean, we talked about Me Too, but in terms of Black women, in particular, who have resulted in death in terms of interactions with police… I think that there’s been a way in which there have always been risks and rewards when it comes to activism, but that students are showing that, at least in the last couple of years, that they’re willing to go there. That the risks and the rewards in terms of what they seem keenly aware of, is that it’s still an uphill battle. That they have to assert with their whole selves demand for access to be afforded, level playing fields – or at least more level, that they’re not distracted by these superficial kinds of things in terms of what you might dangle in front of them to try to get them to retreat. Right? That they’re also thinking about how to redefine the risk in terms of strategy, in terms of ways that they can address specific challenges – some being mainly gendered in terms of, you know, wanting to see Black female leadership, or some, with a lot of the Black male initiatives – there’s a lot of activity on my campuses and on other campuses where students are rising up, there’s a new wave of activism, and I think that they’re coming up with some unique strategies to try to mitigate some of those risks because they also understand that their activism, their decisions today to do that, can result in ways that can limit opportunity later, depending on how they do it. And then there are others that are not trying to be that methodical about it. It is coming from a more organic, emotional place and, yes, they’re bright, they’re prepared, they understand risk and reward, but at the same time, they’re like, “No, we’re having our say.”
Jackie (BB): Let me ask you this: Do they know they’re history, and are they using it to inform their present and their future?
Eboni (X): I wouldn’t generalize to say that they all do, but I think that some, in particular, are poised and grounded in that understanding. I know in terms of just some of the students that I’ve interacted with – some of my advisees – that some of them feel the least amount of support for that kind of engagement, where they will have older generations tell them, you know, “Be careful” – to not take the risk, but they feel like, you know, that these are matters of public policy, that these are conditions affecting lives and, so, some of them feel like, for any number of reasons, that, you know, whether it’s they want to be active around speaking back – clapping back – at what they see as a growing wave of racial antipathy on campus, or a lack of inclusion efforts from central administration, or whatever it is that – some are feeling afraid to take those risks, and they see the risks as more so to themselves, not where this is something that their family or friends are necessarily subject to, and that the benefits of the risks to them make it worth taking, because, you know, they are just at that point of, you know, really wanting to stand up. And, so, I think every generation gets to a point where something where – and, again, that last election – it’s like you get a call to arms. And then it’s the thousand little cuts, you know, in between, of being inundated, where it seems like it’s a rerun, but it’s a first cut, but it happens so much that the way in which folks get kind of, you know, desensitized to seeing – and then being told, you know, “All Lives Matter”… I know when folk hear that and then we time and time again, there’s an acquittal and there’s an acquittal and there’s culpability, and you have campus police profiling you, you have, you know, right-wing student groups on campus, you know… I mean, we just had another Affirmative Action Bake Sale in the spring. We had chalking where very anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Black sentiment and different campuses. And, so, I think we’re at a point where students are – they’re like, “Let’s roll,” “I can’t,” like, “My cup is runneth over.” And the you’ve got others that aren’t – they’re just not going to be actively involved in trying to be on the frontline or getting in the face of administrators or having people protest or stepping outside of their own comfort zone.
Tangela (M): Uh, Gwen, to your original question, I’m on the University of Chicago, one of their professional division’s board. So, we are interfacing with those students. What I’ve been inviting them to do is have a plan – even a loose one – and then to remember that history is cyclical and long. And, so, with respect to social media, what we’re communicating is still the same throughout history, for the most part, but the medium is what’s changing. And, so, whoever’s Googling your name or Googling your account, all of that will come up – that’s following most times, even when you think it’s not there. And then, the next piece I tell them is to be strategic in your alignment, be good allies, and to build a good coalition – including faculty and staff, because those folks have lots of institutional knowledge. You may only be there for two years, you may only be there for four, and the change that you’re seeking to have is to make it better for people who look like you who may want to come to that university. And, the last one is just to be aware of the criticisms that you receive. Everyone is not going to afford you constructive criticism. To let go of the idea of being coddled – that people ought to correct you and tell you what the error is. It should be enough for you to know that you’ve made an error and that you need to come up with a new solution.
Gwen (T/S): Fantastic, fantastic. I think this should be very helpful for students, because I’m hoping that students and those who work with students will be able to hear this blog.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).
First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.
Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.
All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.
I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.
I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.
My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.
One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.
With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.
As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.
I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.
Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.
“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.
After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”
I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.
I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.
A friend who I admire for his intelligence and for his depth of knowledge about writing and life in general liked the book so well that he gave me a copy as a gift. After beginning the book, I went away and left it at home. Then other priorities took precedence and I didn’t read.
It has been important to me to complete the book, not only because I want to demonstrate my appreciation for the gift, but equally as important, I want to see how I feel about a novel written by a white man about the often referenced relationship–if I dare call it a relationship given the power imbalance–between a slave master and a slave woman. Not an ordinary slave master, but Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this country, author of the Declaration of Independence, and father of the University of Virginia, among other notable accomplishments.
The author, Stephen O’Connor, did not write this fictional biography as a traditional novel. His biography of the long liaison between Jefferson and Hemings is infused with fantasies, dreams, and meditations, including characters such as James and Dolly Madison in colorful and fantastic musings.
The author acknowledges that there is literally no biographical information about Hemings and no known photographic likenesses. In his creation of the character of Sally Hemings, O’Connor brings an important element about this slave woman. She looks like a white woman in every aspect of her physical features. I don’t know why, but this made a difference for me in reading the book.
O’Connor created a woman, not a slave without gender identity. He adds dimension to a historical character that most have only known as a slave whose children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.
O’Connor gives us a view of the power and emotional conflict that could occur in the life of a woman in circumstances that were, on the one hand beyond her control, and on the other, we’re not sure.
Through her character, we also see what we’ve always known about Jefferson, such as his complexity and the conflict between his universal moral positions and his way of life. This novel forces the reader to see the intersections of identity within individuals and the wide variations of perceptions within groups of people, regardless of their stations in life and despite the power imbalance in the world where slavery existed.
This book defies any simplistic notions of black and white and slave and master, though as one reviewer notes, “This book is a history of oppression. . .”
For me, O’Connor’s insights as told through the voices of Jefferson and Hemings give him credibility when creating a voice for Sally Hemings. For example,
People adjust to their circumstances . . . Even if it can also be their undoing.
In reference to those who felt fortunate that Jefferson was not a cruel slave master:
Yes we were lucky, but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.
And so the desire to lie to oneself or to make much of small blessings becomes irresistible, and thus to further humiliation. The very songs we sing to escape our chains themselves become our chains . . . .
[Sally Hemings to Jefferson] You think it enough to speak beautiful words, but that beauty is nothing unless those words are lived.
I am partial to biographical novels and sensitive to any efforts to soften or deny the cruelty and moral degradation of slavery and, because of these prejudices, I am impressed with O’Connor’s work in adding a critical piece of Jefferson’s life by creating a persona for Sally Hemings.
We will celebrate our son’s birthday in a couple of days, and this occasion makes me have a moment of nostalgia about our relationship as mother and child.
I could tell you that the doctor kept telling me that I was not pregnant with him, despite the fact that I had missed my period for four months. According to this physician, if I were pregnant, the rabbit test would confirm it, and since the test did not confirm it, I was not pregnant.
I could tell you that he was born close to a month early, and it was a complicated delivery that caused him to be without oxygen for quite some time, according to the doctors. This led them to forewarn me that this child could experience some developmental or other problems. I’m grateful that their warning was not confirmed and he was a perfectly healthy baby.
I could tell you more about the pregnancy as mothers are wont to do, but what I want to tell you is that I have been in awe of this stealth child who fought hard and arrived unscathed to be the light of his mother’s life.
From the beginning, I consciously decided that because I loved him so much, I would have to fight not to allow my love to possess him. I decided that he would belong to the universe and that he was God’s child, and it was my privilege to have the role of mother in his life. Holding him close in my heart and seeing him as not belonging to me or any one person, I have always had adoration for this child that I have the privilege of calling “son.”
I have always respected him as his own entity, and I worked to play the role as parent with nuanced control, not holding the reins too tightly. Growing with him has been like performing a modern dance following the beat of a jazz composition and going with the flow. Rather than attempting to mold him into my conception of what he should be, I trustingly reinforced his unique nature and characteristics. When I think about it, it has not been so much “raising” him as allowing him to be what he imagines himself to be.
I’ve often said that he grew up like a cabbage because cabbages can grow just about anywhere. Though his dad and I did our best to provide the right conditions for his thriving, like cabbages “soil texture is not critical” for him. Because he is an only child, he was often treated as the third adult in the house, with some limitations, whose feelings and ideas were valued. I always wanted him to see the worth of his own efforts despite the opinion of others. Whenever he did something praiseworthy, rather than first telling him that I was proud of him, I would ask, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
With adoring, respectful love and not too much pressure from hands-on parenting in the traditional sense, I should not have been surprised at his response when he was asked by a third party what he thought had the most impact on his development as a man. He responded that his college fraternity was the most important influence on him in being who he is today. I’m also not surprised when he does not remember all the cute incidents I remember about his childhood because his childhood and adulthood, in some ways, have been seamless, in that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy my unconditional love, devotion, and respect because I have always thought and continue to think that he is awesome.