Black Women Caught Between Race and Gender


October 22, 1991|By JULIANNE MALVEAUX

SAN FRANCISCO. — San Francisco -- Why don't black women have an organization as powerful as the National Organization for Women? I mean when NOW talks, people listen, but it's not clear that anyone can say that for any organization for black women.

It's not that we aren't organized -- there are the sororities, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the National Political Congress of Black Women. But the women who lead these organizations can't call a press conference and get the turnout like Patricia Ireland or Ellie Smeal.

The Thomas confirmation hearings illustrated black women's strength and power. No matter what side of the fence we were on, the black women who testified were articulate, emphatic, impressive. Unlike organized white women, though, we weren't on one side of the fence. Maybe that's why we don't have an organization as strong as NOW.

As black women we have always been pulled by the competing claims of our race and our gender. Which of us, when Judge Thomas hollered ''electronic lynching,'' couldn't conjure up a picture of a black man swinging from a tree? But those who have a feminist core wondered whether Thomas had misused the metaphor. Was he suggesting that Anita Hill's black hands made the noose and tied the knot? Or was his wrath focused on the all-white United States Senate?

In any case, there were black women willing to play ''stand by your man'' no matter what the cost. They ranked racial concerns higher than those of gender and felt a need to rally around a black man they thought was being treated unfairly. But there were others of us who had walked a mile or two in shoes that looked like Anita Hill's.

We identified with her calm dignity, believed her charge of sexual harassment, and placed her gender claim over any racial claim Mr. Thomas could make. We thought his invocation of race was a red herring, and were outraged that the Senate, in order to avoid treating a black man stereotypically, chose to treat a black woman that way. After all, the flip side of the black male superstud myth is the myth of black women hot to trot, a woman who has so little virtue that it cannot be violated. As Senators Specter, Hatch, and Simpson questioned Anita Hill and raised questions about her sanity, it was clear that they bought into myths about black women's virtue.

But they aren't the only ones who bought it. Professor Hill's testimony has heightened unspoken differences between some black women, differences that have roots in class, education, generation and even skin color.

I shudder when I hear some black women say what they think of Professor Hill; that she (like Judge Thomas) is ''uppity,'' something a woman ought never to be; that she is too educated, with her head too high up in the clouds, to understand that her actions have hurt a black man. I've talked to black women who shrugged off sexual harassment as ''the price we have to pay to be a woman,'' and found whatever harassment Professor Hill experienced a fraction of that they had to endure. After all, a sixtysomething black woman reminds me, sexual harassment is the rule not the exception for us.

Labor history proves her right. Early 20th-century protective legislation shielded white women from certain work (and pay), but black women often worked at the peril of our virtue. When black women worked as tobacco handlers, preachers in North Carolina and Virginia railed that parents should not send their daughters to those plants because coerced sex was so prevalent. Black women who worked as maids also often were subjected to abuse, harassment and coerced sex. These women would jeopardize lives or livelihood by complaining, so if they needed their jobs, they swallowed their outrage, learned to avoid groping hands and returned to work.

If my forefathers were forced to accept harassment, does that mean that I must? Or can't the outrage that they swallowed fuel black women's fight against sexual harassment?

But black women dispersed their loyalty in this situation, some defending Judge Thomas because no one defends the black man, others supporting Professor Hill because, in Sojourner Truth's words, ''ain't I a woman?''

Black women don't have an organization as powerful as NOW because we don't all sing in the same choir. Between race and gender, our loyalties are divided. The challenge now is if we can learn from these different perspectives to sing the same song.

Julianne Malveaux teaches in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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