Saturday, July 14, 2012

I don’t see you as a Black Woman and other White women’s ramblings

A couple years ago I guest lectured for a colleague. Her class, a master’s level course, was discussing diversity and corporate America. I was asked to speak on my experiences as a woman of color in a majority White institution. I walked in and wanted to declare “yes indeed, I’m live and in color.” I sure did bring color to the room. But at this stage of my career, I’m, relatively speaking, accustom to being the “only one”. This is something that I live with, although I’m never really accepting of it—but that’s a totally different post. 

I did the standard introduction--this is who I am, here are my credentials, etc. Then I spoke to my experiences of disrupting racialized and gendered spaces. I told these MBA perspective students of my experiences of being stopped when entering campus. I’m sometimes stopped, although my parking decal is visibly displayed, and asked to identify which building I’m going to. I’m often asked, in a discreet manner, if I’m faculty. When I respond that I am, I sometimes hear “you look so young”. I don’t look that young. But I accept the flattery. My stop and ask experiences occur in the same library where some personnel request that students prove that they are actually students. 

As I speak, I see the look of discomfort on some faces. After all, these stories can’t be true. Some students discreetly look away from me. Some boldly stare me down waiting for their opportunity to show me how my experiences are not the result of race-gendered structures. One young man said to me that maybe I’m stopped as a result of the car I drive. With a smile I replied “I drive a Mitsubishi Outlander. I’m not rolling up in here on 20-inch rims blasting Snoop.” Over time, I’ve learn that humor is to racism was sugar is to medicine. Just a smile makes the bitter pill of racism go down (caution, this only works in some circumstances). One student asked if I’d considered that I was stopped as I result of my style of dress. “Oh, they can tell how I’m dressed as I sit behind the wheel?” was my response. But this is not what stirred my ire. 

What stirred my ire was the young White woman who declared “Oh, I don’t see you as a Black woman. I just see an intelligent woman.” This was meant as a compliment. However, I’m never sure how I’m expected to respond after such a declaration. Am I supposed to say good for you that somehow you have been able to evolve where race is no longer something you see? How does a 30-something-year old woman who has lived her entire life as Black respond to such a statement? 

 I responded by saying “You’re not going to like my response.” All the while with a genuine smile on my face. I then explained to her how this statement, in essence, erases me and fails to see me for who and what I am. I also asked her if she ever stopped to think how I wanted to be seen. For those who at this point might think that I’m bitter or the so-called angry stereotypical Black woman—I’m not. Just like my Italian-American neighbors I want to celebrate who and what I am. They wave flags, speak in Italian, name their children in so-called typical Italian names, yet rarely do I ever hear someone condemn them for doing such. So why can’t I be Black? I AM A BLACK WOMAN. This means something to me. And equally, it means something to others in the world who use my race to tell me how and what I should be in society.

I guess that I simply don’t have the privilege to define myself. Instead, I must be seen as the “intelligent” woman—as though my intelligence can be determined by simply looking at me. Or even worse, blackness and intelligence can't co-exist. So I'm required to pick one and only one--Blackness or intelligence. I also asked her why was it important to her not to see me as a Black woman and how this might result from her experiences while having nothing to do with Black women? I received a blank stare and then a tucking of the head. In an instant, I morphed from the intelligent Black woman to the evil Black woman because I resisted someone’s definition of me. 

Black women don’t seem to be permitted to exist in the imagination or even the social reality of some white women. Consider the recent article that appeared in a Utah Magazine titled “Utah Magazine Celebrates Women Of Color.” All of the women on the cover appear white. The picture under the heading displayed seven women all dressed in bright colored clothing. According to Taylor, who reported on the response to this piece,

“Our good friends at Gawker caught up with Bennett and she was completely clueless as to what the term means to the rest of the world. “That was not intended as an ethnic comment,” Bennett told Gawker when they called to ask her if she was familiar with the traditional understanding of the adjectival phrase in question. “It was just clever wordplay. It was that women add color, and there’s more than one meaning of color.” (emphasis added)

Vanity Fair, in 2010, show-cased rising stars on its cover. Amanda Seyfried, one of the stars gracing the cover, was interviewed on the View. Whoopie Goldberg asked her about the absence of persons of color on the cover and why she was surprised by someone asking her to reflect on this absence. She replied, “I hadn’t thought about it. I mean I hadn’t seen it….It’s true, but there is a lot of different hair color.” The conversation quickly turned to the wonderful women of color who had been nominated for Oscars and her other acting roles. Wow! There are diverse hair colors. Does this compensate for the marked absence of women of color? As I watched this, and even years later I am saddened, angered, and dismayed. I feel the same way after reading Bennet’s display and her claim that there’s more than one meaning of color. Even if Bennet didn't know of the politics of this naming process, there was no one at the magazine who knew differently? Theoretically I understand the absence of women who look like me from our cultural representations. However, psychologically it is painful to comprehend. 

The students, Bennett and Seyfried all seem clueless; clueless about their privilege and clueless about others’ experiences with race, class and gender. They are unaware of the struggles Black women, and women of color more generally, encounter in naming themselves. They are unaware of the politics of a self actualization. Not to belabor you with a history lesson, but the term woman of color originated in 1977. Yet, in 2012 some aren’t even aware of the term and the politics of this naming process. This speaks to a larger project that seeks to erase Black women from our social imagination. 

Planned Parenthood
Such erasure is not only taking place in the social realm, but it is also occurring in the realm of politics. Since the passage of the welfare reform legislation in 1996 do we speak of Black women in our policy discussions? Think about it. There is an alleged circle of sistas in the Obama administration. I dare you to name five of them without doing a Google search. Michele Obama has become a darling among some, is it because she is a Black woman or is it because she is a fashion icon that allows people not to see her raced body? Where are the Black women who publicly challenge our foreign policies? How are they positioned in the main-stream media? Where are the Black women in the discussion on reproductive health? Many critiqued the recent House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty and the birth control rule for its representation of patriarchy—the hearing was dominated by men. Very few analyzed this hearing via a lens of race, gender, and class and their intersections. Where were the women of color at the hearing?

Not seeing Black women in our social and political realms and even in our imaginations (as in the case of the TV show Girls) is a telling story. This is part of a larger political and social movement to erase Blackness in the hopes that we “can all just get along”. The erasure of Black women speaks to the dark-side of multiculturalism; one that strives to encourage us not to see differences among and between groups. Seeing differences is not the problem. The problem is that people use differences to oppress. Multicultural teachings and ideals have not resulted in the dismantling of the oppressions. Instead, it has rendered the material consequences of differences invisible. Multiculturalism gives those in power the tools to ignore some segments of our community with claims such as I don’t see you as a Black woman. This claim suggests that I’m just like you. No I’m not. Race has real consequences. One only has to look at the rate of HIV infection among Black women—and no, this is not the result of higher promiscuity among this group or the actions of men on the down low. One only has to consider the rates of breast cancer and resulting deaths among Black women to realize that race and its intersection with class and gender still matter. One only has to walk the halls of academia to realize that, yes, race matters.

Black women are the canaries in the mine. We are disappearing and no one seems to notice. If we were ever in need of a Black feminist movement, the time is now.


  1. I would like to commend you on this Blog and particularly on this entry. Brilliant!!!
    Your words struck a cord with me. As an African-American women living and working in Europe, I often find myself in similar situations,and have always secretly hoped that the situation in the USA was somehow better. Thanks for the eye-opener!!

    Best regards

    1. Dear Cassandra.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Where are you if you don't mind me asking? This type of understanding of what it means to be a Black woman travels through time and space. Last yr we went to the Dominican Republic and it was fascinating to watch it play out there. Except in that cases I was seen as a Black woman--and it wasn't the most positive response.

    2. Please forgive the delay of my response. I live and work as a diversity manager for a city marketing company in Mannheim, Germany. I came to Germany as a young women to study. My life unfolded in a way that caused me to stay: studies, marriage & family etc.
      I put down roots here and made an attempt after finshing a Post-Doc in the UK in 2010 to return to the US. Things didn't work out, so I decided to stay and go where I was offered a position.I am involved with the Black German community here and have published a chapter and several articles about Black European women and political activism. Hope that I haven't bombared you with too much information :-). Actually, I wanted to enquire about a call for papers regarding a publication that you and a colleague of yours will edit, but unfortunately came across the call too late.
      Would love to stay in touch and converse on various topics. Have a great day and I promise to read my posts more frequently. Warm regards from Mannheim, Germany

  2. Are you sure you're not an angry woman? You kind of seem like one to me. Just an observation, for whatever that's worth to you...

    PS I didn't leave out the word 'Black' for lack of seeing you as a 'Black woman'. I do see you as a 'Black woman', among other things -- a beautiful one, too! I left out the word 'Black' because I don't see you as an 'angry Black woman' -- I'm not familiar with that particular archetype as much as the 'angry woman' archetype, since I used to be an 'angry woman' myself.

  3. Dear Dangerous Linda:

    There are a few things that I want to highlight in response to your comment. I also want to pose a number of questions to you. I'll start with the comments

    1. There is a difference between being critical and being angry.This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with being angry.
    2. The stereotype Angry Black Woman embodies race-gender hierarchies. It, unfortunately, has real consequences for Black women. I recommend the following authors to you--they address the functioning of stereotypes in the lives of Black women: Sue K. Jewell, Patricia Hill Collins, Dorothy Roberts, Julia Jordan-Zachery (there are several more but this is a good place to start). I also recommend Peggy Mcintosh's work on White privilege. Finally, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, on racism without racist, might be helpful to you.

    Now to the questions:
    1. Why do you feel it necessary to post your observation about how you see me? What purpose are you expecting it to serve?
    2. How does your construction of me reflect your own social location--your race, gender, class..... location?
    3. How does your observation reflect and perpetuate race-gendered power differentials.
    4. How would your feel/respond if after you've defined yourself someone totally disregarded your construction? For example, what if a White male said to you that he didn't see you as a woman?
    5. Why can't I be a beautiful Black woman? Is it that these two can't coexist in your imagination?

    For what it's worth, I am indeed a Beautiful Black woman, "among other things". The beauty is that I get to define me and that only adds to the depth of my beauty and my willingness to respect and appreciate others' understanding of who they are.


    1. Hi, Julia! ~

      I agree there is a difference between being critical and angry. For example, I see myself as more critical and you as more angry.

      I appreciate the reading list you suggested. I will look into these titles/authors. I am always interested in learning and growing toward greater empowerment.

      To address your question about why I felt it necessary to post my observation, the answer is simple. As a blogger myself, the purpose of my blogging is to invite conversation. I welcome comments on my blog whether they agree or disagree with me. I have learned some of my greatest lessons about myself by being challenged by people who disagree with me. Since that's what I expect from my readers, it is also how I approach others' blogs.

      Specifically to address your #5 question, I did describe you as a 'beautiful Black woman' which just proves how angry you are that you are trying to make me (and possibly everyone who disagrees with you) out to be somehow putting you down when we're not.

      If all this makes me a 'whoring/piggy backer' as your friend, Dee Dee, suggests then I'm obviously playing in the wrong playground.

      I wish you the best and I'm done with this conversation. Good Luck & Good bye!

    2. Dangerous Linda:
      Never once in my response to you did I call you anything but your "name". I don't pretend to define you, neither do I attempt to offer any attempt at deciphering your motives. Again, I encourage you to address the substance as opposed to attempting to name me.
      Finally, you made a conscious decision to define me. Well it can work both ways. Anyone who reads this blog is free to define you also. I have no control over how anyone responds to you. As my mother would often tell me, "if you don't want to get burn then don't play with fire." She would also tell me to do 'to others what you would want them to do to you." These words of wisdom are at the core of everything I do. Finally, as you suggest there are consequences for our actions. You simply received one consequence for your action and as you imply in your response, this is part of blogging.

  4. Julia

    well said.
    "Dangerous Linda" is attention whoring/piggy backing.
    I'd call a chick like her "Cali Phony" they claim to be colorblind but are anything but.

    You were more than kind in your response to her.

  5. I still wonder about black women being the canaries in the mine. I just think the momentum hasn't gotten to a rolling point. Black women are getting upper education at a higher rate then black men. Not that black women do not have their struggles because they do. I am just wondering how it could be in not being seen when in education at least they are outpacing black men. As time flows surely we are going to see more black women in the political circus.

    I am not sure about Mrs. Obama's circle of friends but if I were left to place another black woman of color I would say Condoleezza Rice would be another. Still in matters of ethnicity black people see themselves starkly in color. You, can see it by the Oreo experience, also a clever blog by a black woman, in how a black person who is black is percieved by others of their ethnicity. We would ask that whites not see us as angry black women but what about seeing within our own ethnicity deviations and belittling them? I personally expect more unity and maybe it has gotten better I have been in Asia for a long time. In my experience it hasn't and while the girl is trying hard not to see color I don't think it is possible even in the black community itself.

    1. Dear Harrison Anderson:
      Thanks for your comment. Where in Asia are you and how long have you been there? One can only hope that with increased educational opportunities for some Black women that it will lead to increased access to other areas.