Category Archives: respect

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

Clothing, Confidence, and ‘ccomplishment

Clothes don’t make the person.
It’s not what you wear it’s who you are.

My mother’s parents probably used similar words and sentiments when she asked for new clothes.

My mother and a boy named Wesley Lee were the only students in the school that the teachers thought were ready to take the exams required to graduate from the eighth grade. The exams were given at the Sunflower County Seat in Mississippi (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i) rather than at the school.

This trip was a very special occasion and a testament to the accomplishments of these students.   My mother’s Aunt Alma (by way of marriage to my mother’s daddy’s brother) promised to get her the white dress and shoes that girl graduates were required to wear. Instead of buying new clothes and shoes, Aunt Alma gave my mother one of her old white dresses that she often wore to church and a pair of her white, old-lady, blocky-heeled shoes. The shoes were so much larger than my mother’s feet that she had to wear them with socks instead of nylons.

My mother was so embarrassed about how she looked in Aunt Alma’s clothes that, for the first time that she could remember, she was nervous and scared. Thinking about how awful she looked caused her baking soda deodorant to stop working. She could smell her sweaty underarms and was sure everyone else could too. Although she passed the exams, the memory of the shame about how she looked and felt in those clothes lasted.

Words and sentiments thought to teach and appease get passed down through generations when parents can’t afford or won’t buy their children the clothes they need and want.

I was living with my dad; my mother was living in Chicago. When my dad didn’t buy me clothes, I would write to my mother to ask her to buy me what I wanted or needed.

When all the other kids in fourth and fifth grades were wearing penny loafers, I was still wearing the scuffed white and black Oxford shoes that had been popular in previous years. The really cool kids put a nickel or dime in the slot where the penny was supposed to go. I really wanted penny loafers! I even sent my mother a picture of the shoes in case she didn’t know what they were. I never did wear penny loafers. I didn’t feel that I belonged.

When it was time for school pictures, I wrote my mother to ask her to please send me a new coat. I told her that when I took school pictures the year before, the sleeves on my coat were too short and kids laughed at how I looked. My sleeves were even shorter in the next pictures since I was wearing the same coat. I was ashamed and felt ugly.

Clothes may or may not make the person. Clothes may or may not cause others to prejudge based on what one is wearing. Clothes may or may not have an effect on one’s behavior and level of confidence. However, from my personal experience, how I think about myself in particular clothes impacts my feelings of self-confidence and ultimately how I perform the task at hand. 

A Pie in the Face

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

Other times, you get a pie in the face when you think that you can tell your boss and colleagues that you’re ready to seek other employment.

Things start to happen…sort of like eating pie outside at a picnic table. Like a fly buzzing your pie, you fan away the rumors you hear about why you’re really looking for another job.

Then there are a few more flies, but you think you can still swat them away because your boss has just given you an evaluation so flattering about your accomplishments that you’re embarrassed.

Because of the increasing number of flies, you cover your pie carefully and put it in a safe place.

You tell your boss that you are a finalist in your search for a new position. You are asked to withdraw your application and stay one more year because you are needed. Your boss – who said that they would help in your search – tells you that the higher-ups are questioning your commitment to the institution.

You forget about the pie completely.

You make an appointment with the higher-ups. When you enter the office to attest to your commitment – WHAM! The pie you forgot about smacks you right in the face.

87

Gratitude

“You would have more time to get other things done if you didn’t write so many thank you notes and letters,” said Joan, my wise administrative assistant in the 1980s.

While reviewing notebooks and journals I’ve kept over the years, I am amazed at the number of times I noted that I was writing a thank you to someone for something or other. For example, shortly after my retirement as NASPA executive director in 2012, I took a trip as part of the association’s exploration of offering professional development to those who provided student services in some of the universities in China.

I was in Shanghai at the Renaissance Hotel after having travelled to several other cities in China when I reviewed my meeting notes and made a list of the people with whom I had met during this visit. My list included 27 names and pertinent information to help me recall who the people were and the occasion of our coming together. These were the people to whom I would be sending thank you letters upon my return to the United States.

When I wrote the letters, the ones that made me smile the most were the ones I wrote to “unofficial” people, such as the exuberant young women students who met me at some station or harbor in pouring rain carrying a bouquet of flowers that were the worse for wear after being drenched by the rain.

As I look back on what was a time-consuming and, to me, necessary chore of writing so many notes of gratitude over the course of my life, I realize that I likely benefitted more from writing these missives of appreciation than the recipients who might have given my message a cursory review at best.

In order to write the message, I had to recall the location, the interaction, and the result of the meeting. I could relive the pleasantness of the moments. Often, there are so many distractions and emotions present during encounters—whether with people we’ve just met, day-to-day colleagues, or long-time friends and family—that keep us from appreciating what is happening in real time. Recalling the experience in quiet contemplation, we can tease out the wonder of the gift of having made this unique human contact. I’m grateful for these memories and writing to express my gratitude on so many occasions has been well worth the “costs” in time and effort.

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  

Happy Birthday, Ida!

Ida B Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On this day—July 16—158 years ago, Ida Bell Wells, a tireless and formidable crusader, was born.

As an investigative journalist, Wells informed, bullied, and cajoled the readership of Black publications to fight for their schools, their rights, their dignity, and their lives against a racist and segregated Southern culture.

Writing for church publications and early editorials using the pen name, Iola, she is best known for her anti-lynching editorials and speeches, though she was a founder or prominent member of every civil rights organization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous during her own lifetime and revered after her death, she fought for racial justice, women’s suffrage, and human rights with both intelligence and heart.

In addition to her pamphlets and editorials, she excelled as a speaker at home and abroad, exposing the shame of racism in America, particularly as concretized and illustrated by the brutal lynchings and mass murderings of Black people. This diamond of a woman had many precious facets, and if she were pressed to identify any flaw, it might be that she had human feelings and could be hurt by the slights and betrayals of people who should have been some of her strongest supporters. Despite the hurt and sensitivity, she soldiered on, standing in the front lines of the cause even as she faithfully carried out her duties as a wife and mother.

Reflecting on the extraordinary life and monumental achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, I see her as a beacon that shines the way and a staff that supports all of us who want to gain the right to call ourselves the sons and daughters of Ida.

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

Ideal qualities of humanity on display

Being forced to stay put these days reminds me of the East Coast Blizzard of 1996, when Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia were declared disaster areas after more than two feet of snow was dumped over one weekend. After being snowbound a couple of days and optimistically believing our local weather forecasters that the storm was over, a lot of us ventured out to work with walls of snow surrounding us.

The bad news is that we were all sorry we had left the haven of our snowbound houses because many of us had to struggle mightily to get back home. The good news is that what I witnessed during my commute warmed my heart and gave me hope about us as a people. I was so moved by what I saw happening that I journaled the experience.

My commute required a metro subway and a train. On the first leg of my trip home to the Maryland suburbs after a fool’s errand to get to work in DC, a woman near me on the metro was squeezed in so tightly that she was almost sitting on a man’s lap while holding on to a stabilizing pole. When she apologized, he responded that he understood that she could not help it. (It was not possible for him to get up and give her the seat.) After about a minute, the woman who was hanging on just above the gentleman’s lap turned, smiled, and introduced herself to the gentleman and the woman sitting next to him. They smiled back, introduced themselves, and began to make small talk. They chatted easily as if they were at a social event. They were of different races and, judging from the manner in which they were dressed, probably did not live in similar neighborhoods.

Although we were patient as we invaded one another’s personal space, we were aware that the metro was taking much too long to move ahead from the station. After a while, there was an announcement regarding mechanical problems, which seemed to serve as a signal for people to settle in and begin conversations with one another. Chatting seemed to help because the crowding was paralyzingly tight. No one could move. As can be the case when there is a captive audience, some joker began shouting off-color jokes, and one brave passenger yelled that we didn’t want to hear what he had to say and that he should pipe down. As the joker quieted, the conversations resumed.

To our great disappointment, there was another announcement after some time that the train was out of service. With a collective groan we prepared to offboard. While we had been inside the disabled metro, more people had come to the platform and it was jam-packed when we squeezed off the metro. There was no room to push back behind the caution line, and many of us were dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Incoming trains were as packed as the one from which we had disembarked. Needless to say, none of us on the platform were getting on any of the approaching trains.

Did I mention how cold it was? It was freezing.

As I stood squeezed so tightly that I could not turn, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere behind me yell out the question, “Does anyone know how far we are from Union Station?” Several people yelled back that it was the next stop just four or five blocks. The woman who asked the question said, “It might be better to walk if we have to count on getting a train here.” Several people, as if they knew her, said that it was much too cold to walk the distance. Not facing the woman, I yelled out that I’d be glad to share a taxi if I could get back to the exit. She said, “Sure, let’s do it!”

My fellow commuters twisted and turned in their heavy coats, shifted their brief cases and bags, and helped me push through the crowd to the escalator where my anonymous taxi partner waited. We gamely took the escalator up out of the station, feeling proud of ourselves for our initiative.

When we emerged from underground, we were in a deserted Judiciary Square. We looked at one another and commented on how quiet it was. It was eerily like being in a ghost town – there were no cars nor people, but there was a whole lot of snow. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there would not be a taxi on these unplowed streets.

As we trudged through the deep snow, we realized that we didn’t know what direction to walk to get to Union Station. She was from Virginia and I was from Maryland, and we’d only taken trains to our destinations in DC. We hadn’t walked too far before a lone man passed us, and we asked directions to Union Station. We were so relieved when he pointed us in the right direction.

We walked single file, encouraging and helping one another as we slipped and fell a number of times on the way. We finally arrived at Union Station and embraced warmly, wishing one another safe travel home before parting for the second portion of our journeys on our respective trains.

Finally getting on a train, I didn’t mind the newest delay as a result of ice on the tracks. Just as before, I witnessed people spending the time in community. Two women sitting opposite one another struck up a conversation and realized that they both worked for the same large communications corporation. They talked about their career paths. A man I thought to be in the military said to the woman next to him, “You see that hat that woman up front is wearing? My daughter has one just like it.” He went on to tell this stranger a funny story about his daughter, who he described as an archaeologist who was beautiful and a really fine human being, just like her mother.

I listened to these conversations and was heartened because these people did not take their frustration out on one another. I was amazed at the amount of camaraderie among a diverse group of strangers. Although it was not a wise decision for any of us to have attempted the commute during this record-breaking blizzard, this experience was a break from being snowbound and isolated, and it was an opportunity to actually look at one another directly and engage one another in a basic human-to-human exchange. If I had to sum up the collective attitude, it seemed to be that all were of one mindset: “We’re all in this together, and there is no one to blame. Everybody is doing the best they can.”

The history that I want to recall is that disasters – regardless of the degree or kind – often pull people together in a manner that displays our ideal qualities of humanity. Like no other experience, disasters can promote a feeling of community and common identity in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.