Category Archives: women

KBJ: Portrait of Black Women

The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.

Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.  

I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.

Unsung Hero

One of my happiest memories was when my mother and I studied together. I was in high school and she was working days and attending Marion Business College on Madison Avenue in Chicago in the evenings. It was quite a hike on foot, but she made the trip with a spring in her step. She wanted to acquire secretarial skills in order to be qualified for an office job.

To study, we would close the door to the kitchen to lessen the sound of the television in the living room. In my memory, my grandparents were always watching the western, Gunsmoke.

Sometimes my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table next to a cold radiator because, more often than not, there was no heat. This inconvenience did not deter us from studying, however.

We would turn on the gas for the stove, strike a match, and light the oven. We would keep the oven door open to try to keep warm.  When it was too cold to study in the kitchen even with the oven door open, we would take our books to my mother’s bed and wrap ourselves in blankets and enjoy the warmth of our shared body heat. Rather than complain about the cold, we sometimes would exaggerate the chatter of our teeth when we tried to talk and laugh so hard that our eyes would water.   

Muhdear, as my siblings and I called our mother, was her best self when she was learning. She was excited about learning the Gregg Method of shorthand. I would quiz her by reading sample passages typically used in a business office and she would rapidly transcribe them into shorthand. I was fascinated at how easily and quickly she learned. She was so smart.

This photo of her as she exited the school with her certificate of completion captures her joy of achievement against so many odds.

I am so proud of her.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As part of my personal motto, represented by the acronym FIRE, I make a habit of reflecting on experiences and what can be learned from them. I have used my journals over the years to do just that in the process of writing. It is my hope that sharing these reflections through this BLOG may have some value for others, but please note that I intend for people who I do not specifically name to remain anonymous to readers. For the record, this blog post is not about NASPA or anyone I worked with at NASPA.

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.

If Only She Had Someone To Talk To…

Work and paperwork brought home from the office meant she didn’t get to bed until around midnight most nights. Reeling from exhaustion, she would fall into bed only to have her sleep disturbed by strange dreams. There were only a handful of days in a month that she didn’t wake up with a headache, nausea, backache, and/or stomach pain. Yet, she pushed through the sick feelings to do what was expected at home and at work. During an entire year, she missed only one day of work because of sickness, and she used this as an “opportunity” to catch up on paperwork. If only she had someone to talk to.

She drove herself to do more than required on her job and in her volunteer work. She was like a robot doing what she was programmed to do. But she was not a robot, and her body kept telling her that. If only she had someone to talk to.

Why the struggle? She was a mid-level administrator. From her perspective, being mid-level in the hierarchy of administrators explained the purgatory in which she lived. If only she had someone to talk to.

Though she could see the positive results of her efforts, she was denied a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction because, before the good feelings could register, someone would do or say something that would cause her to push back in anger or retreat into a lonely shell of self-doubt. If only she had someone to talk to.

She could not understand why people resisted doing their jobs. Her attention to this would bring on accusations that she was micromanaging, and that she was managing rather than leading. If only she had someone to talk to.

Whatever staff needed for resources, she fought to get. If they had ideas about how to improve support to students, she was all in. She encouraged innovations and saw more than a few of them become successful. No one could give more to the job than she did. If only she had someone to talk to.

When particularly antagonistic staff began to misquote her and tell her that she had said things that she had not said or—even more mystifying—that they, themselves, had said, she felt incensed. If only she had someone to talk to.

When her mind seemed to be becoming a mess of tangled ends, she began to ruminate on the Joseph Heller quote from Catch 22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” She thought, if only I had someone to talk to, someone who could see in me what I can’t see for myself.

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Oprah Winfrey: She is Woman

Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Vera Anderson/Wireimage
Oprah Winfrey

In celebration of Women’s History Month for 2021, I raise up Oprah Winfrey as a true icon. Given the overuse of the words “icon” and “iconic” in describing people, when I use the term, it is to describe someone who crosses cultural boundaries and performs as if they have special powers, such as “a god, a hero, or an idol,” as the word “icon” is defined. 

Bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, Oprah has made an indelible mark in the entertainment industry. She has penetrated the psyche of people all over the world by persuading us to focus on what she thinks is interesting at a particular point in time. Her interests become our obsessions. Some will say that Internet stars and the Kardashians do the same thing, but none of these influencers can hold a candle to Oprah because she came from so far behind and her reach extends far beyond entertainment and commercial endeavors.

Coming from an impoverished childhood in an obscure town in Mississippi, enduring hardships no child should experience, and competing for a place in an industry that is both racist and sexist, Oprah Winfrey is the iconic self-made woman of our time. And what’s more, having reached the pinnacle of success, she sustains her prowess.

Sure, she works hard, is dedicated to her craft, takes risks, practices gratitude, and is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. Others have approached life in this manner, as well, so what makes Oprah different? In regard to her success as a talk show host, it’s said that, “She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives” (“Oprah Winfrey: The TV Host,” TIME Magazine, June 8, 1998).

Oprah’s empathy and penetrating questions may be the secret sauce that makes her the world’s most admired talk show host, but she is so much more than a TV host.

We have witnessed how she has endured intense scrutiny and criticism. Sometimes it has seemed that the world is waiting for her to fail. And still she rises.

To achieve the kind of fame and fortune that Oprah has garnered is nothing less than miraculous. Her success against all odds makes one ponder life’s mysteries.

But when all is said and done, Oprah is the iconic woman of the 20th and 21st centuries whose life and legacy reveals the possibilities for all of us, especially women and girls.