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Whose Village Are We Talking About

By Karla FC Holloway

HillaryI have noticed a prevailing and quiet discomfort amongst black women I know, who felt disconnected from the joyous celebration of the first woman to become a major party’s nominee for the presidency. This, despite our shared and deeply held pride in seeing the excellence and command from black women party leaders who stepped confidently into leadership roles, deftly managed state delegations, and who were clearly and absolutely major players in the Democratic National Party’s committees. We know that these women, each standing tall and accomplished, had earned their accolades.

But despite their presence, a quiet unease muted my own celebration and that of others I know in part because we intuitively recognized how those individual accomplishments are as stellar as they are individuated.

Our collective black bodies, the ones that mark our place were also on display at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. It’s important not to dismiss a critical distinction. When it comes to our anticipation, pride, and hope, it is not the cracks in the ceilings that matter as much as the crack in our communities.  It is not the exquisite accomplishment of some of us but the extraordinary vulnerability of most of us.

I see this play out in my own university when white women lead diversity initiatives that would not even have a name if it were not for the systemic biases practiced against black folk.  Joyful congratulations are attached to their ascensions to leadership and they are seen as exemplary. But when there is critique about diversity policy or inclusive procedures from experienced black voices who recognize the old patterns finding ways and means in the new ones, and who have known ceilings of our own, we are labeled as unreasonably discontented and unpleasantly cynical.

Clear-eyed and astutely analytic Black feminists foresaw this divide decades ago. It was apparent then that we would need a different word (womanism) to name our activism and that the language of intersectionality was a better descriptor of our project.  We watched as the women’s movement became a celebration of individual accomplishments. The gain was an evolving list of names on Fortune 500 lists or a mega-audience when these exceptional women shared lessons on how to move forward. Women need only to (…wait for it…) “lean in!”

We listened to women with the wherewithal or chutzpah to sense that a phrase about a village or the values our children might live by was available for the taking from black folk despite the fact that we did more than say the words, we lived in and through those experiences.

Back in the day, the conflict between the woman’s movement and the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the bodies that occupied them. Some dreams of liberation would be empowered enough to name the quality of freedom others might want and even give name to the conditions of that gain. Our bodies were always and already consumable.

If you wonder at the story in a body, consider those daughters, Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump. On their respective stages, they stood in absolute certainty that their personal and prettily told-stories about their mother and father would be enough to be named iconic. Iconic. Really? Their speeches were to be compelling enough to stand in the stead of each parent’s policies and practices (and although there are certainly achievements, there are also policies that led to decades-long incarceration, lowered wages, and punitive policing to the point of dangerous disregard and disrespect—recall “wilding” and “super predators”).

Nevertheless, the audience was told these two girls had words that simply by being spoken in their role as daughters of the privileged, could humanize their parent. Pardon my skepticism.  I have never been in a group that could, or would pretend there was excellence to be extracted from a rather common and nearly pedestrian performance.

We’ve demanded more. In fact, as an exemplary seeing and saying of words that matter and that had their origin in substantive acts, consider the remarks and the commanding presence of Reverend William Barber. That moment touched me deeply, not just because of its performative quality, but because he has lived the struggle expressed in his righteous moral reclamation.

Despite the smug assurance that lay behind these individuated symbolics, I know fully and well that my identity lies nestled within the parade of others—the Muslim father, the black “Mothers of the Movement,” the disabled girl, the transgender activist…all of whom stood in for communities of folk that public policies and public moralities render vulnerable. The only ones who got to celebrate individual accomplishments were singular white women who were so extraordinarily empowered by the moment tears streamed through twitter like a river.

I’m saving my tears.

But let me also be clear that I will work mightily to assure Hillary Clinton is elected. I’m a pragmatic progressive who knows that Supreme Court appointments will determine the fate of any president’s politics and any politicians’ legislative initiatives. These will matter to my community far more than the balloon filled, teary celebrations of a fractured glass ceiling, a father’s awkward embrace of his daughter, or a grateful mother hugging hers.

I will not be blinded by the optic. I know exactly where “we” stand, and I’m perfectly willing to find myself in that company.  That’s where my “we” finds its village. And that’s the place where our children will find their example.

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Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, where she also holds appointments in the Law School, Women’s Studies, and African & African American Studies. Holloway is the author of BookMarks: Reading in Black and White and Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character, as well as Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics andPassed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial, both published by Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfHolloway.

Women and Girls of Color: ‘What Truth Is Missing?’

By Britt Jenkins

Last month I had the opportunity to attend an eye-opening conference focused on issues affecting women and girls of color. Renowned political scientist and Duke alumna, Melissa Harris-Perry, a feminist scholar and director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, organized the April  29th ‘Know Her Truths’ conference to kick off the Collaboration to Advance Equity through Research.

The Collaboration, initiated last fall at a White House Council on Women event, is a voluntary affiliation between universities, institutions and advocacy groups committed to addressing the deficits in research on women and girls of color. Britt

Participants in the two-day conference represented diverse gender identities, ethnicities, beliefs and backgrounds.  This was an incredible gathering given that in the weeks prior, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the HB2 legislation that targeted many of the individuals and stakeholders in attendance, making the ‘Know Her Truths’ conference an affirming and important experience for many of us.

With the current political environment in North Carolina perpetuating discrimination by excluding the voices and visibility of entire groups of people, Dr. Harris-Perry began the conference with a definition of feminism.

Feminism, she said, is “when someone asks the question ‘what truth is missing?’” Dr. Harris-Perry’s message steered conference participants to critically examine what truths have been neglected.  The conversation topics — such as bias in school discipline, grassroots advocacy strategies and the influence of stereotypes on reproductive healthcare — were bold, and encouraged us to challenge one another and be candid, resulting in a breath of fresh feminist air.

The panel discussion on school discipline disparities focused on how society criminalizes black girls.  The panelists began with an overview of research that examined implicit biases in the discipline of black girls, but the conversation quickly transformed from an empirical discussion of disproportional impact to personal accounts.

Janel George, an attorney with the NAACP, recounted a time in elementary school when her teacher targeted her because he thought her voice was “too loud and grating,” an apt illustration of the “loud black girl” stereotype. An audience member responded, sharing her own experience of how the criminalization of young girls of color in school is often reinforced in the workplace. She said that she, like others in the room, had been accused by male co-workers of being too aggressive when confronting workplace discrimination.

If standing up against discrimination is perceived as aggressive, “what do I tell my daughters?” asked the woman.

It was apparent to me that the stereotype of the “angry black woman” is still a powerful and pervasive influence in the perception black women, even within professional settings. Of course no real answer could be determined, but the space provided an environment to affirm the perspectives and specific realities of the women who spoke.

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My favorite panel at the conference featured members of the New Orleans non-profit Women with a Vision who specialize in grassroots “front porch” approaches to civil action post-Katrina.  The organization, which was started in 1989 in response to the HIV health crisis, has been successful in providing outreach to the most neglected, including marginalized women, sex workers and their families. Their groundbreaking work led to a violent backlash. In 2012, their building was set on fire. Despite the hardships, Women with a Vision have continued to engender trust within communities and actively create relationships with their clients that elicit a sense of partnership and empowerment.

This spoke to me directly as a public servant and graduate student in public policy who has spent the majority of the last two years in a more sterile, academic environment. Often stakeholder voices are subverted in favor of empiricism and objective analysis, which inevitably leads to biases that can take away from the experiences of the people being most affected by a problem. It was beautiful to see the care and dignity Women with a Vision provided to clients who eventually became friends, allies and fellow collaborators.

The final breakout panel I attended included policy makers and advocacy leaders on reproductive healthcare measures. While the panel featured a conversation on abortion rights, it was quickly extended to a discussion on discrimination felt by women of color in all spheres of reproductive healthcare.  Research has shown that African Americans are perceived to be able to endure more pain than other races, which has resulted in withheld pain treatments, limited reproductive healthcare options, and unnecessary pain and duress during labor.

At the end of a day full of powerful testimonies and truth-sharing, Dr. Harris-Perry addressed the room by directing a message to one young woman who had provided one such testimonial by saying, “We hear you, we believe you, we affirm what you say and we are proud of you.” The affirmation and acknowledgment of voice was the most important, empowering component of this conference. The conference reinforced for me that incorporating truths from a variety of perspectives is just as valuable as other forms of data.  And it showed me how research and advocacy could blend together to create more informed, inclusive movements.

The conference provided a space for Collaborative members to network, share ideas, best practices and outcomes related to research and the lived experiences of women of color. As my work with the Collaborative, hosted by the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity, continues this summer I look forward to facilitating this kind of truth telling about issues affecting women and girls of color on Duke’s campus and beyond.

Britt Jenkins, MPP, is a recent graduate of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy with a research interest in reproductive rights. She currently works as a research assistant at the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.

Collaborative To Advance Equity Through Research Agreement

Membership agreement from the Equity Through Research website:

The Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research is a voluntary affiliation of American colleges, universities, professional schools, seminaries, research programs, publishers, and public interest institutions committed to taking meaningful action to support and improve research about women and girls of color.

This Collaborative serves as a national model of substantive action, best practices, and sustained partnerships to advance equity through research about women and girls of color. Women of color will constitute more than half of all women in the United States by 2050, but are infrequently the central subjects of scholarly inquiry. This research deficit has meaningful consequences for the ways our institutions contribute to public discourse and policymaking. This Collaborative seeks to address that deficit.

The specific form of commitments from the undersigned institutions vary according to the unique mission, structure, and resources of each institution.

Together we recognize and affirm a shared commitment to generating new knowledge through rigorous scholarship, cultivation of a diverse academic pipeline, and sustained effort to build and implement a research agenda. Recognizing the imperative to act, members commit to the following:

1. Publicly acknowledging, via membership in this Collaborative, the critical need for increased research investigating women and girls of color and the value this research holds in advancing equity for women and girls of color.

2. New or continued support for specific actions on our campus or in our institution that contributes to meaningful research endeavors engaging and addressing women and girls of color. The specific form of our commitments will vary according to the unique mission, structure, and resources of each institution.

3. Conducting a review of the existing research efforts at our institutions and sharing the results of that self-study with members of the Collaborative in order to establish a landscape of existing scholarship, share best practices, and identify areas needing enhanced attention.

The Collaborative is being hosted by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University in conjunction with the White House Council on Women and Girls. Photo credit: Blair Kelley, NCSU.