White women are so nosy. They are always asking a bunch of questions, trying to find out things that are none of their business.
-Hillari, a thirtysomething
It's so hard to establish trust with African American women. Even when you work closely with them on a political campaign, like I have, they always seem to hold something back.
-Helen, a fortysomething
White woman in public relations
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
These two comments represent the mere tip of the iceberg in the Arctic Ocean of tension that too commonly exists between African American women and White women. Why, after more than three decades of Civil Rights legislation, school desegregation, and widely integrated work environments, are so many White women and Black women still at odds with one another? While men have fared no better, and arguably race relations between men have been worse, somehow it seems that women, who have fought so hard to overcome inequality in the workplace and the stigma of second-class citizenship, would have formed friendships and alliances through their common cause. For over twenty years, feminists have been proclaiming that all women are "sisters beneath the skin." But it turns out that the appeals for sisterly solidarity during the first two decades of the modern feminist movement were issued largely by White women, rather than White women and Black women together. These women, their Black counterparts have proclaimed, were ignorant and insensitive to the harsher realities of racism experienced by Blacks. In turn, White women, to their frustration, have felt that Black women resisted change and sisterhood, focusing exclusively on the concerns and agendas of Black males, continually placing the issue of race and the needs of the men in the Black community before their own, often separate issues.
The fact is that few White women or Black women as adults have close friendships with women from different racial backgrounds. As we rapidly approach the turn of another century, it would seem the time has come to examine the many reasons for women's continuing racial coldness, indifference, and more than occasional anger toward one another. We fastened on the title Divided Sisters because, despite "sisterhood," the reality is that the overwhelming majority of White women and Black women dwell in separate cultures. As Sharon A., an African American high school circulation librarian, described it, "In the faculty lunchroom, there are the White tables and the Black tables. You might acknowledge women at the 'other' table, but never would you sit with them." White women are often hurt and confused by Black women's preference for separating themselves. White women also underestimate just how different the two cultures can be. When Candy, a White college student from Arlington, Virginia, first discovered that her freshman roommate was Black, she thought, "Okay, this will be fun." But by the end of the year, Candy had this to say:
In a more positive vein, we subtitled our book Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women. We believe that despite, or perhaps because of, women's lesser political power, it is they, rather than men, who hold the key to improving race relations in this country. By now, it is clear that as long as women of different races remain at odds, traditional, White-male dominated corporations and institutions will change only incrementally, if at all. Conversely, society will transform itself only when women decide together to fight social inequality in all its various forms, whether based on race, gender, or class.
Certainly women of Latino culture, and those of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American descent, are part of this engine of change. We hope that they will read and learn from this book as well, and not feel left out of the discussion. The fact is, however, that tackling the relationships between women of two racial backgrounds and cultures is itself an ambitious and challenging focus for a book, and the relationship between Black women and White women in our culture is, because of the far-reaching economic effects of slavery and century -long legal constraints of segregation, by far the association with the oldest and fullest history. It is our hope that by addressing the obstacles to better relations between White women, who help to make up the "dominant" culture, and African American women, who make up the "dominant" racial subculture, we can also improve relations between women of other races.
A book of this nature should address, and diffuse as well, some of the controversy behind the meaning of race. Increasingly, scientists say that race has no basis in biology. While this may be true when it comes to genetics, on a more practical level race continues to have enormous sociopolitical meaning in this country, Race has something to do with skin color, but it is defined by much more than that. Having white skin generally, but not always, means that you are White. Nonetheless, many Latinos have white skin, yet they are not considered White in this culture. And there are some Blacks with lighter skin than many Whites, yet they are not considered White, either. The reason for the apparent contradictions goes back to the one-drop rule of racial identity. During the Colonial era, persons who were racially mixed and free were legally declared to be Black, even if they had but one drop of African blood, as a means of restricting this growing population and limiting their rights. More than three hundred years later, this "rule" still permeates our cultures and dictates the identities of most African Americans. Those who attempt to claim multiple racial identities are often met with strong resistance, from White supremacists, but also from Blacks who fear the weakening of their political base if the Black community starts to splinter. Thus, whether biologically based or not, persons of European ancestry in the United States are assumed to be White and are raised and treated as such, while those of mixed or pure African ancestry are assumed to be Black.
Another issue we grappled with is terminology. In the past few years, the term for those of African descent living in the United States has changed from Black to African American. The newer label is preferred by many because it places emphasis on the cultural aspects of racial identity, as opposed to just skin color. We debated long and hard about the use of "Black" versus "African American," especially in the subtitle. In the end, we decided that Bridging the Gap Between African American Women and White Women was awkward and unbalanced, while Women of African and European Descent reeked of political correctness or academic jargon. We settled on Black Women and White Women, in large part because it was the easiest to say. For now, at least, the terms Black and African American remain interchangeable, especially in casual conversation.
And finally, we needed to take into the account the issue of class in discussions of race. Whenever anyone attempts to make generalizations about one group compared with another, as in "White women are this way and Black women are that way," they risk gross racial stereotyping. This is particularly true when one attempts to discuss people who come from widely disparate educational and economic backgrounds. Distinguishing between differences of class and differences of race is a constant struggle, and we have tried to acknowledge the continual interplay of race and class. At the same time, in a racist country like ours, perceptions often outweigh realities; Oprah Winfrey or Whitney Houston, among the wealthiest people in all of show business, can still be passed over by a cab driver in favor of a White passenger. Snap judgments are made all the time on the basis of skin color. The sad truth is that racial stereotypes of women, whether we dare to name them or not, exist in the day-to-day world.
Throughout Divided Sisters, several themes emerge to define and shape women's cross-race relations. The first is the issue of power and privilege. As far back as the Colonial era, White women enjoyed an unequal position of power in their relations with women who are Black. On plantations in the antebellum South and throughout a good part of the twentieth century, many White middle-class and upper-class families across America could count on the services of Black women to cook their food, clean their homes, and raise their children. Rarely have African American women had the luxury, or even the desire, to hire White women to do the same for them. And to this day, in female-dominated pink-collar occupations, where as many as 70 percent of women are employed, far more White women supervise Black women than vice versa.
Issues of privilege also affect relations between White women and Black women. Regardless of economic circumstance, White women can count on skin color privilege, that invisible package of benefits that comes from simply being White in a primarily White society, especially one that has historically discriminated against Blacks. For most White women, racism is not a factor in their lives. They don't even think about it. This was recently driven home to us when we were on a plane traveling to Omaha, Nebraska. When she was serving refreshments, the White female flight attendant skipped over the row we occupied. Midge interpreted the woman's behavior as mere oversight, but Kathy, who had noticed that she was the only African American person on board the flight, could not help considering the possibility that the attendant's actions were racially motivated. In some instances, the behavior of the offending person is racially motivated; but even when it's not, the effect of race discrimination and inequality in our society raises questions about individual and corporate motivation, questions that do not arise for White women.
A more controversial theme we explore in the book is that of competition. Whether at school, at work, or in politics, African American women and White women have often assumed a competitive stance, vying with one another for a limited number of scholarships, promotions, or elected positions at the top. While sex discrimination has much to do with this, rarely have Black women and White women recognized the divisive effect of such competition. As a result, more often than not, Black women and White women view one another as major obstacles to their own advancement. This is exactly what happened to an African American woman named Sandrya and a White woman named Rebecca, both of whom were up for partnership in the same year at a prestigious, primarily White male law firm. Sandrya was convinced the firm would deny a partnership to a woman of color; Rebecca was certain that the firm, intent on becoming more racially diverse, would opt for a woman who was Black.
A more subtle issue has to do with standards of beauty and femininity. In a culture that narrowly defines the ideal feminine beauty as White, anorexically slim, and preferably blond, tensions among women of the two races are bound to run high. So vast is the subject of beauty that it spills over to affect girls' friendships from childhood to college, women's political alliances, and their images in the media. Ultimately, questions of beauty exacerbate differences between "mainstream" American culture, as seen in the pages of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and other publications, and African American culture.
There is perhaps no more divisive or potentially explosive issue between White women and Black women than interracial sex, dating, and marriage. For reasons that are both historical and contemporary, sexual jealousy continues to plague women's cross-race relations. As an African American woman named Missy from the East Coast complained:
Beneath the surface of relations lie often unspoken feelings of guilt and resentment. Such destructive feelings pervade nearly every aspect of Black and White women's lives together, from love affairs to work relationships.
Feelings of guilt permeate women's social relations as well. A White woman named Cheryl remembers one night when a homeless Black man was spotted by party guests in the alley below. The White hostess, apparently fearing that the only African American woman present might think her racist, invited the man upstairs. Unwittingly, the hostess ended up angering the woman, who deeply resented that she was being equated with a homeless man simply because she and he were both Black.
If guilt proves divisive for White women in their relations with African American women, resentment often divides Black women from White. African American women are bitter that even the poorest White women seem to have a better chance of experiencing upward social mobility than many middle-class Black women. They also resent that standards of beauty and desirability are slanted against them. Even as minor a matter as hair texture and hair style, in this atmosphere, can be a source of intense irritation, if not rage. A Black lawyer named Cassandra said, "One of the big reasons why I can hardly stomach White women is because of their hair."
White women, too, harbor
feelings of resentment. Affirmative-action programs may grant advantages
to Black women in the workplace or in gaining entrance to college over
equally qualified or needy White women. Such negative feelings can begin
as early as adolescence. We spoke to Patty, a White high school cheerleader,
who took exception
to the presence of a Black cheerleader, Michelle, on the varsity squad. Patty believed that Michelle was picked only because she was Black, even though some of the White girls who were not selected had better skills.
Despite these different concerns, increasing numbers of women of both races are forming lasting interracial relationships. The most powerful expression of this intimacy is manifested in the interracial relationships of White and Black lesbians, but many heterosexual women are also coming to value deeply their friendships with women of the other race. Still, these friendships are viewed differently by women of the two races. Black women rarely want to gloss over the racial differences, whereas White women often do. Deanna, White woman, learned the hard way not to " whiteface" her Black girlfriend, Temple, when she expressed her feelings of fondness for her by saying "Your blackness doesn't faze me. I see you as my best friend, as a person with no color." To Deanna's surprise, Temple shot back, "A major part of who I am is that I'm a Black woman. For you not to see me as Black really hurts." Despite such occasional flare-ups, Deanna and Temple have successfully learned to negotiate the sometimes treacherous but ultimately rewarding waters of an interracial friendship. As an African American journalist named Audrey Edwards wrote, about a White girlfriend with whom she had been tracking birthdays for twenty-five years, "Race, in some ways, has mattered the least in our friendship, [but] in other ways, it has mattered most." Or, as another light-skinned African American woman, Stephanie, put it, summarizing why her friendship with a White woman, "We know that we are divided by our race, but we also know that we are bound by our gender. And what is common between us-that we both are women- is as strong as the race that divides us."
Perhaps this bridge
of affection between Black women and White women is best seen in racially
mixed families, such as those in which the father is Black and the mother
is White. Among the Black and biracial women celebrities from these families
are actresses Jasmine Guy and Halle Berry, singers Mariah Carey and Paula
Abdul, and Village Voice
columnist Lisa Jones; each gives credit to her White mother for raising her well. And in other racially mixed families, where a White mother adopts a Black daughter, there is no question that the maternal bond is secure. As Mary Brown, a White California foster mother who has been trying to adopt the biracial girl she took in more than three years ago, put it, "You don't spell
love C -0-L-0-R."
A spirit of cooperation
and hope for social change has similarly marked the relations of Black
and White women activists throughout history, from the nineteenth century,
when the Grimke sisters and Sojourner Truth joined forces to help bring
an end to slavery and win female suffrage, to the present. But for women's
status in society to be truly advanced, everyday women, not just feminists
and those on the front line, must begin to work together. A house divided
will never stand. It is our intent in Divided Sisters to open doors
between women of different races, to provoke discussion, and to expose
to the sunlight and open air some of the issues that distinguish and too
often divide American women of European and African descent. To some extent,
the interracial experiences that inspired us to undertake this book are
further reflections of the spirit of unity and hope among growing numbers
of White and Black women today. We believe a book like this is long overdue.