Women have inherited a context in which race, class, and gender enter with them, treating them as if they’re guests in the house of opportunity that women before them paid for and left for them to build upon and expand. Some enter the house and find that they are prevented from going to the upper levels of the house because they couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Others realize that they could not even stand up to their full height in the house because the ceiling of expectations was so low.
Although traveling different roads to get there, all women who enter the house have a story to tell. Women’s History Month 2020 is a good time for women to share these stories and to recontextualize the barriers that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. When women recontextualize the conditions and circumstances of their existence, race and gender can become strengths that stimulate a collective vigor to support and help each other succeed in all the houses they enter.
Women who came before cracked opened doors through which women who followed could squeeze. Because of the work of those who have come before, women today are obliged to ensure that there is no turning back, but a continuous reaching back to move the next woman forward. Will women of today accept their role in the story of women? When women recontextualize the story of women, the house is on the high ground and all the rooms have a favorable view.
When MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow interviewed Elizabeth Warren on the day she withdrew from the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, the tone was pessimistic about whether a woman would ever be elected President of the United States, and how devastating such pessimism would be for women now and the young girls who are seeing this as their future.
It’s not for lack of trying that a woman has not been elected president of the United States. Though history was made in 2020 when six women were candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, seven women before them also ran for president. The first woman to run for president—though it might be disputed by some—was Victoria Woodhull, who ran as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. It would be almost a century until the following women dared stand for the office again:
It was 36 years ago this month that the first collegewide task force for diversity on which I served hosted a Women’s Week program. After a year of meetings with faculty about the need to make the curriculum inclusive, we were thrilled that Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women had agreed to be our guest speaker. Her papers on white privilege had catapulted her to the top of the A-list as a speaker on issues of equity and privilege.
It was not until after this program that our task force realized what a dismal failure we had been in helping faculty to see that educating for diversity could revitalize their work, affording them the opportunity to rethink knowledge, evaluate their teaching methods, and effectively put students’ learning at the center of their efforts. Disappointingly, it seemed that few faulty beyond the twelve of us on the task force saw the point in making their syllabi and the curriculum more inclusive. The hardest blow—and most debilitating comment—from a faculty member after the Women’s Week program was that Peggy McIntosh was interesting and charming, but what did her presentation have to do with them?
This was not the first or the last time that I would hear a woman described as “charming.” A synonym for charming is “likable”—the standard to which women who run for high political office seem to be held. By contrast, many women are looking forward to the realization of what former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Amy Klobuchar said: “I think what matters most is if you’re smart, if you’re competent, and if you get things done.”
When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.
While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.
What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.
Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.
After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.
When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.
I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.
There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.
When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.
When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.
While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.
Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.
What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.
February is Black History Month and, though I don’t want to talk about race per se, my experiences as a consequence of being black in institutions where there were few other people of color seem to bring me back to this song that has no ending.
My student teaching experience in an all-white institution – with no mercy from the high school supervising teacher or the practicum professor from the university – was so traumatic that I fainted in front of the class when I was being observed for my final evaluation. It was just too much pressure.
In my first teaching position after college, then, I was determined to right the wrongs of my student teaching experience. With only one other black teacher in the English Department, I had to pass the rigorous scrutiny of the Department Chair, who frequently just popped in to my classes unannounced to observe.
One day Miss Nelson, white-haired and married to her role as Department Chair, stopped by my classroom to chat about the Parents’ Night scheduled for that evening. She smiled and assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about. In fact, she said, “Don’t be disappointed if parents don’t show up because parents seldom visit the teachers of their children in high school.” Imagine my surprise when all the seats of my classroom were filled for every hour of visiting on Parents’ Night.
Because of my history as a black woman, when I was a counseling psychologist at a community college, I vigorously resisted the suggestion that all counselors have large photos posted outside the counseling center with a short professional bio so students could see with whom they were making an appointment. While there might not have been anything nefarious about the intent, you can guess what I thought.
Thinking back on these times and realizing that this song seems to have no ending makes me want to quarantine new generations of students from our history and from our current cycle of politics. Why quarantine? Because sometimes the professionals who have always believed that education for diversity and expanding one’s world view is the way to confront partisanship and polarization get discouraged.
For those who might be feeling discouraged by the tone and reality of our current political environment, I recommend what I think is an excellent article on what educators can do to continue to provide opportunities for reaffirmation of our very humanity and that of our students. In “Interfaith Learning and Development – Building an Understanding of Religious Differences” (Leadership Exchange, Winter 2020), Interfaith Youth Core Program Manager Janett I. Cordovés and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Director of Diversity and Social Justice Education Ross Wantland write about how “provocative encounters” with diverse peers help students develop a “pluralism orientation,” resulting in the following positive outcomes, among others:
accepting others with different worldviews;
believing that worldviews share many common values;
considering it important to understand the differences between world religions; and
believing it possible to have strong relationships with diverse others and still hold to one’s personal world views.
The success of these provocative encounters depends on the ability of facilitators to both challenge and support students in these controversial learning spaces. Civility in dialogue around differences of opinions about religion and politics are high bars to attempt to reach particularly in an environment in which political identity has become the cauldron of multiple identities that not only exclude “the other,” but also make that “other” the enemy. Nevertheless, it is Black History Month, and we want to end this song.
On Saturday, January 18, I went to “Awaken 2020” at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Kanye West and his Sunday Service Choir performed for just about an hour of the 12-hour event. To describe what Kanye and the choir did as a performance does not nearly capture the impact they had on the thousands of people in the stadium.
What struck me most was how the music of the Sunday Service Choir seemed to have the power to compel thousands of people to lose themselves in a common trance. On the jumbo video screens, we saw close-ups of the faces of individual choir members as the setting sun shone brightly on their uplifted faces; we heard the hypnotic and mesmerizing drum beats in the music that insisted that bodies move in sync; we responded to energetic invitations of the choir director to sing along; we stretched our arms to raise our right hands in unity.
There were other great gospel choirs before I arrived and, throughout the event, various people famous in particular arenas spoke their thoughts about Jesus, God, and the Bible, and gave testimonies of personal experiences of depths and heights.
As a participant observer, I was impressed not only by the power of the music spectacle to invoke ecstatic feelings among people as diverse as the universe, but also by how it caused me to reflect on the critical role a trusted mentor might play in helping one to discern messages.
What if someone were severely criticized by family and friends for attending Awaken 2020 because they did not trust the veracity of Kanye’s conversion? Having experienced such good feelings only to be admonished later by those closest could cause doubts and questions about who and what to believe.
I’m using Awaken 2020 and a possible subsequent experience to point out the benefits of college beyond exposure to facts and critical thinking based on a preordained curriculum. On college and university campuses, mentors are found, more often than not, in student affairs and among the faculty, administrators, and staff. Whether or not they see themselves formally in such a role, these “mentors” offer students of all ages the opportunity to share who they are beyond the traditions and often admonitions of family and long-time friends.
Stepping out beyond one’s inner circle is a way to learn the essential skills for a well-lived life. Being in a community of learners provides opportunities to constantly weigh opinions of others against personal beliefs. The act of daily living among people who are not one’s natural protectors gives students opportunities to self-determine what is important to their own well-being and their image of themselves as citizens in community with others. Whether on campus or online, college provides the context and laboratory to experiment with notions of who one is and what one believes in light of others’ opinions and perceptions.
I understand that a college education is not necessarily for everyone and no longer the defining asset for a financially successful life. But for those who elect and are fortunate enough to attend a college or university, what is learned in dialogue with others or when someone just listens helps one look inside oneself for the personal integrity necessary to glean the rightness of a situation or belief. These “aha” moments can also bring the wonder and awe of a religious experience.
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.