Scoping the realities of black women's lives: a team examines the effects of shifting roles to adjust for race and gender.
From a literary standpoint, it will be my firstborn. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America speaks of the masks we black women don, the emotional ripples that we weather trying to survive in the face of relentless racism and sexism. It speaks of how we hurt, but also of how we fight back and lean on family and faith to cope, thrive and soar.
As an African American woman, I understood the concept of shifting implicitly. I had done it my entire life, as when I took care not to use slang when speaking with my white peers or when I debated whether to report the cab driver who brazenly passed me by or to snuff my rage, pushing the slight into the recesses of my mind. All the changing, ignoring, self-affirming and battling that I had to do to achieve or simply to keep my self-esteem afloat became second nature. I had never thought to put a name to it.
Despite a career in which I often wrote about race relations and the issue of identity, the idea of writing a book was an abstract goal--until the day I received a call from an agent, Todd Shuster. He was interested in doing a book about the lives of African American women. I agreed that we were a more-than-worthy topic.
But where to begin? There was so much to examine, to reveal, to celebrate. I began to cobble together a proposal detailing our achievements and tribulations. I wrote of the pressure many of us feel to choose between our race and our gender, as though two salient pieces of our selves could or should be separated; about feeling the need to always work harder or shine brighter; to prove that we deserve to be wherever we are. I wrote about how some black women feel we must alter our personal style, downplay our opinions or reshape our natural voices to put others at ease and escape the snare of stereotype.
At some point while writing, I used the word "shifting." The term soon emerged as the central metaphor for the book; the word that best captured and evoked not only the various guises black women assumed, but all the changes black women went through emotionally and psychologically as they dealt with bias.
I felt that the book would be stronger and more authoritative if it included the expertise of a psychologist who could provide a clinical understanding of the costs of shifting; a black woman who could speak to the emotional and cognitive processes that might be occurring when a black woman buys a pair of contact lenses, trading her brown eyes for blue, or when she goes from being a dynamic supervisor on the job to a docile homemaker at night, biting her tongue to make her husband feel empowered and affirmed.
Enter my coauthor, Dr. Kumea Shorter Gooden, a clinical psychologist and professor at the California School of Professional Psychology of Alliant International University. She and I often joke that we were an arranged marriage. Brought together by our agent, we first met for brunch at Georgia Brown's in Washington, D.C. She looked over my rough proposal and soon we embarked on our collaboration. It was a true partnership from the start. Together, we amended and polished our book idea and more than 100 pages later, in July 2001, we earned a mid-six-figure advance from HarperCollins.
Kumea and I had developed a survey to help gauge the experiences of black women throughout the country. It was the foundation of what became the African American Women's Voices Project, the largest, most comprehensive study to date of African American women's perceptions and experiences of racial and gender bias.
A few questions asked for a yes or no response. (In the United States, do you think there are negatives stereotypes about black women?) But most were open-ended queries in which we asked women to briefly write about their experiences. (What are the major difficulties that you face as a black woman? Please give examples.) A network of 43 relatives, friends and colleagues--all of them black women--assisted us by passing out the questionnaires. We offered complimentary bookmarks and prestamped envelopes as incentives, and we ultimately received responses from 333 women who came front a cross section of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, ranged in age from 18 to 88, and lived in 24 states and Washington, D.C.
Two graduate student research assistants worked with Kumea to tabulate the data. The yes/no answers were easy to count. For the other questions, however, Kumea and the researchers used standard psychological research procedures to develop a uniform coding system. After each survey was coded, the percentages were tabulated.
Our survey results were revelatory, showing the degree to which black women changed themselves when around whites or in relationships with black men, how man of us believe that we have weathered not only racism but sexism, and what we rely upon to stay focused and inspired. Besides our findings, we also perused the latest social science research available on African American women, synthesizing and building upon that throughout the book.
In addition to the survey participants, we chose another 71 women to interview in detail. It is the voices of these women that provide the soul of Shifting.
At times, there were tears. "We're required to bend in as many different ways as possible in our daily activities," says Shay, an artist in Massachusetts. "We have to be extremely flexible, and people expect us to be good al it. Friends, family, relatives, coworkers, society.... For each different role that we perform in society, we have to bend a different way. And if we don't perform those roles well, we're perceived to be, and sometimes we perceive ourselves to be, less than adequate or failures."
"You always have to explain yourself because people jump to conclusions about what you mean, or what you said, or your tone," says Erma, 49, of Los Angeles. "Right away people are on the defensive. You have to explain yourself so that you won't be misconstrued, which sometimes gets on your nerves, because you just want to say what you mean and mean what you say, without having to break it down because 'You think I mean that, because I'm black.'"
For Kumea and me, Shifting reflects our own lives as well as the journeys of the many women with whom we spoke. I have, at times, felt on the precipice of two voices, wondering which one to use when I am at a cocktail party with black professionals or in a rib joint in the 'hood or in the company of white colleagues. Kumea recalls how she has struggled to make sure her daughter could shift, proud and comfortable within the African American community, yet be able to cross boundaries and enjoy success in the larger world.
For now shifting is a necessity. Sometimes it yields a positive outcome, allowing you to discover unexplored parts of yourself, enabling you to ascend in the world and build bridges reward others. Often the costs of shifting are far too high. Of the women we surveyed, 90 percent say that they have experienced racial discrimination and 69 percent acknowledge having dealt with gender bias. A majority of the women in our survey--58 percent--say that at some time they have changed the way they act in order to fit in or be accepted by whites, and 79 percent of those women say they shifted in the way they communicated, toning down their mannerisms, changing the way they spoke or what they chose to speak about.
"Shifting can chip away at our sense of self, at a sense of wholeness and centeredness, leaving us emotionally, physically and spiritually depleted," Kumea says. "As a psychologist, I learned how stereotypes and racial and gender bias often underlie the anxiety and depression and despair that I see. They are an important but sometimes, hidden piece of the puzzle as to why black women often struggle emotionally."
Shifting lets every black woman know that she is not alone in her experiences.
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|Title Annotation:||the writing life|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2003|
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