Emory Report

Feb. 1, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 18

Women talking with women: what's race got to do with it?

Women talk easily with one another about the problems facing their gender. But race is usually an entirely different matter. It's difficult to cross the boundaries of politeness, intimidation and, sometimes, resentment to talk openly about issues confronting women of various races and ethnicities.

In what is quickly becoming an annual King Week tradition, "Women Talking with Women: Women of Color & White Women in Dialogue" convened at the Women's Center for a Jan. 20 discussion moderated by Pam Epps, associate director of the Emory Counseling Center.

"We used to call these difficult dialogues," Women's Center Director Ali Crown said at the discussion's onset. "I always said that if I were someday in the position to bring black women, white women and women of color to a place where they could be safe to have these types of difficult dialogues, I'd make it happen." [In the interest of anonymity, Emory Report will not use participants' names, only those of the facilitators.]

Epps began by asking the women--there were almost equal numbers of black and white women and several women of Asian heritage who attended--what first made them aware of gender or race. Flesh-colored bandages and crayons were one woman's milestone. A black woman remembered always wanting a white Barbie doll, but her mother would say no.

Another woman remembered that, as somewhat of a tomboy in her rural community, she always told people she wanted to be a farmer when she grew up. Working alongside her father one day, he asked her, "Do you still want to be a farmer?" When she nodded yes, he replied, "Maybe you need to go into the house and help your mother."

Not quite so amusing was Crown's realization as a preteen in her mostly Catholic, ethnic neighborhood, that her friends had been told by nuns at their school that they shouldn't play with Crown or her sister, who were Jewish. "That was my first sense of that kind of division that can happen between people," she said. "You can certainly feel empathy for what other people feel every day of their lives."

Throughout the more than two-hour discussion, women listened respectfully to one another as they shared fears, frustrations and feelings about their status. Black women said their parents urged them to dress better, study harder and behave well because, as one women recalled her mother saying, "People will prejudge you." Many of the non-black women at the discussion expressed dismay that this message was stressed repeatedly for black children and one asked, "Didn't it make you angry?"

"Unfortunately," came the answer, "it's true--not something [our parents] made up or pulled out of a crack in the cement." Another woman said that if she went into a convenience store after school in a black neighborhood, she and her schoolmates could only enter two at a time, and without backpacks. In white neighborhoods, she remembered, there were no such prohibitions.

Said another, "When life throws those kind of curve balls at me because I'm black or a woman, it makes me work harder to achieve, to say to doubters, 'I'm going to show you I can do it, and I can do it 10 times better than you.'"

As for issues faced by women here at Emory, an Asian-American woman of Korean descent said she wants to see herself reflected more in the academic curriculum. "There's a large Asian-American population on campus but not an Asian studies major," she said. Emory emphasizes multiculturalism, she added, but that usually breaks down along familiar "party" lines-black and white. Emory's approach to dealing with "people of color" needs to become more inclusive of other races, backgrounds and sexual preferences, she said.

--Stacey Jones

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