Two Julie’s Story So What if I’m a Black Woman?
Race remains one of the most contentious issues in our country. Race and campus climate has become a critical issue on college campuses. And racial inequity and differential treatment in policing and criminal justice have made national headlines and led to activism and social movements. When we are at cocktail parties, race, along with politics and sex, is often a forbidden subject. We are often socialized to pretend that race does not exist, encouraged and rewarded to see people as individuals without color. Yet, for many, particularly ethnic minorities, race is a primary identifier. It provides a sense of pride, a sense of connection and belonging; it becomes an all-encompassing source of identity. One’s racial affiliation can determine lifestyle choices and values, and it influences relationships and behaviors. But race can also lead to a sense of shame, discomfort, embarrassment, and fear as individuals encounter experiences of oppression and racism. Race can lead individuals to engage in stereotypical behaviors or behaviors that serve as attempts to fight against stereotypes. Although our relationship to race is a lifelong fling, our connection to it changes with new experiences and with changes in development.
Julie’s story is one of exploration and the development of her racial identity. Although she has always had an awareness of her status as an African American woman, race had little salience or meaning until she was confronted with racial concerns and episodes of racism in high school and college, which, according to Erikson (1968), is the time when identity development begins. As you read her story, you should think about the influence that racism can have in shaping identity, an individual’s sense of self, and self-esteem. Also, begin to think about how Julie’s level of social class interacts and intersects with race, along with the role of gender in her life.
As a 30-year-old African American female, it feels like I have had to deal with my race and its impact on me and how I view the world since the day I was born. I was raised in a single-parent African American household. My maternal grandfather lived with me most of my life and acted as a surrogate father. I saw my father pretty frequently, and he did give me an allowance and took me shopping; however, I always got the feeling he only did it to please my mother. I viewed my father as being very distant and never looked forward to his constant put-downs and negative comments. When I mentioned this behavior to my mother, she usually defended him and made excuses for his behavior: “He just feels if he says that about you, you’ll work harder to prove him wrong” or “He’s just having some problems right now. Just ignore him.” I soon stopped telling her because the excuses were worse than the comments.
As a young girl, I searched for affirmations of my beauty and intellect. On television, I did not see many African Americans, and my earliest dreams of being a career woman were colored by how I thought the “White” people did things. You see, my community was poor and Black. Some of the schoolteachers were White, but for the most part, I didn’t interact with Whites until I went to the store with my family outside of our community. I often dreamed of traveling and seeing all the places White people came from. It’s funny—visiting Africa never entered my mind until high school.
During my search for an identity as a young girl, I remember hating to go get my hair done. We would go to a friend of the family who had a beauty shop in her basement. She was an older woman, and my weekly press and comb was done by her. Here my mother talked and got cooking lessons and life lessons. I always felt I was being tortured and talked about. I have very thick, coily hair, and it was the topic of many discussions. My “bad” hair was difficult and hard to manage, and I was often teased about cutting it off. Although I never said anything, this early experience made me feel I should have been born White. I remember getting mad at my mother on a few occasions and asked her why my daddy couldn’t have been White so my hair could be “good.” My mother, probably unable to understand the full magnitude of what I meant, would tell me my father was chosen because he was the person she loved.
As I began to develop and get noticed by men in a sexual way, I went through a very uncomfortable and difficult time, which still plagues me to some degree to this day. At home, my father constantly told me I was fat and would have to be pushed through the door by the time I was 18. My grandfather would yell at me to take off the shorts or whatever else I happened to be wearing, and my mother would just say, “Your father used to tell me I was fat when I was your size, and I look back now and see I wasn’t.” The only people who seemed to think I was beautiful with coily hair and large hips, thighs, and buttocks were the boys who lived in the area. Because I did not have a great relationship with my father, it’s safe to say I didn’t trust men, so, thankfully, I did not fall prey to any male sexual advances during this time of turmoil. Also, because I was heavily involved in church activities, I believed that sexual activity before marriage was forbidden, and I was determined to not fall prey to it. Lastly, because my father wasn’t around much and my mother was raising me alone, I never wanted a child out of wedlock. I had been called a bastard too many times and never wanted my child to endure such a thing, nor did I want to be the subject of the Supremes’ song “Love Child.”
All of this physical development and turmoil began when I was 12 years old. During this same time, I got the greatest shock of my young world. One day as I sat in the kitchen eating my dinner alone, my father was in the den (located the next room over) watching television. The doorbell rang. Suddenly my mother appeared to tell my father someone wanted him at the door. Well, this was most unusual because my father did not live with us and most definitely did not receive any visitors. As I peeked out of the window, I saw my father’s van double parked and a woman standing near it with her hands on her hips and her head moving from side to side. It was apparent she was yelling from the way her hands would occasionally wave in the air. My mother stood in the darkness on our enclosed porch, listening. I ran back to my seat in the kitchen as my father came past me to get his shoes and prepared to leave. I asked who was at the door, and his only response was, “Who do you think?” After I told him who I thought it was, he said, “Yep,” and walked out the door. We were never to speak of her again, and, in fact, my mother and I never spoke of her until a few days before my wedding, when I told her I had reservations because I was not confident a man could be faithful. Her only response was, “I knew you would have problems with this eventually. I just didn’t know when.”
As a Black woman, this early event had dramatic effects on me. Did only White families have faithful husbands who took care of their families and loving and devoted wives? Was it a Black woman’s fate to raise her children alone and to bear them outside of marriage (there sure were a lot of single female parents at church)? Why was I not considered beautiful, and because of my appearance, would I ever meet someone who would love me and think I was beautiful? It’s funny, but as I continued to struggle with these issues and entered high school, I remember my father telling me he would not walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. Like the glutton for punishment I was, I asked why. He told me that when I got divorced because the man was no good and could not take care of his responsibilities, I couldn’t blame my father for giving me away.
In high school, I attended a magnet school with a very mixed ethnic population. I discovered there were intelligent Blacks and Hispanics as well as intelligent people from other ethnic groups. To me, we got along great. I do not recall having any racial discussions or hearing people put down because of their race. You were considered elite because you were able to get into the school, and if you were able to stay, well, you were destined for greatness, regardless of your race. I never really thought about race during this time.
Granted, my time at school was very different from my time at home. At home, I was surrounded by African Americans who engaged in the use and distribution of drugs, there were gang fights and shootings, and many of the young girls my age were pregnant or soon to be, but somehow I wanted to believe I was better than they were. I was going to make it, and in my mind I would be a credit to my race. How awful to admit such a thought, but nonetheless it is what I thought. I began to imitate my White classmates. I spoke proper English and worked very hard at sounding White. I even worked on my accents: British, California Valley girl, and so on. I see now that I wanted to be anything but Black. As I left my neighborhood for school each day, I dreamed of being a doctor or anything else that would take me around the world and make me important. In some of my daydreams, my hair was a bouncy, wavy texture, and my skin was much lighter. I was considered beautiful, and all of the men—White and Black and everything else—thought I was the most beautiful woman they had ever met. See, I knew I was Black, but I hated everything about being Black. I hated the way Black people spoke, and I hated the way they laughed and drank and looked.
I hated that they all didn’t want to do better, wouldn’t go to school, didn’t find jobs, had unprotected sex, and so on. I didn’t realize it, but I hated me. I didn’t like my full figure, and I definitely found nothing beautiful about my skin or my hair. I wanted to be White, and I identified with the White culture. I felt that Blacks were in the shape they were in because of the decisions they made. I was unable to see anything differently. My grandfather would also make comments about the neighborhood gang-bangers or other members of the community, which helped to reinforce my beliefs.
In high school, we were all required to take an African American history class, which I thought was an awful requirement. After all, I was Black, so therefore I didn’t need the class. Right? Wrong! I remember feeling overwhelmed at the material and somewhat confused. All of my grammar school history books never even mentioned Blacks. We simply were the slaves. Now here was this new information that said we contributed greatly to the world and to the United States. How could this be? The instructor assigned a research paper for us to write, and I still remember part of it and the changes it began to make in me. We were assigned an African country, and we had to write about the land and its people. Additionally, we needed to first start our research at home, in the family encyclopedia. Well, this was great because, for a poor family, we did own a set of encyclopedias, and I thought I would finish this assignment on Egypt in a hurry. Well, I looked up Egypt and found all the pictures of the people to be drawings of White people. I remember feeling hurt and furious. Were Egyptians White or Black? Then I discovered that they never really said Egypt was in Africa (which I found out later during my research). I was floored. How much did I not know about being Black, and why were they (I wasn’t sure who they were) trying to hide this information?
As I entered college, I still had these grand dreams of being accepted into the White world as one of them. I knew I would have to work hard and felt that every word I spoke or wrote was a reflection on how much like them I could become. I did join the African American student union, but this was only because a Black girl I met during orientation introduced me, and I just began hanging out. I also began to discover that making friends with other people (those who were not Black) was much harder than it had been in high school. In fact, most people wouldn’t even talk to me let alone be my friend, but I attributed it to my unattractiveness and not my race.
While walking through the community area one day, I noticed many clubs were attempting to bring in new members. I was looking to move on campus and began to talk to a resident of an off-campus dorm. The dorm had a chef and many other benefits, and they seemed very eager to have me apply. Cool, I thought. I can move in here, and this would be great. I didn’t realize they wanted me because they didn’t have any Blacks living there and thought it would be a good idea to integrate. I also did not know I was in for some trauma that I was not prepared to deal with on an emotional level.
I was accepted and moved in right away. It was the beginning of my sophomore year, and I already had a 3.8 average and wanted to keep up the good work. During the first week of classes, I went to the study area in the dorm and prepared to study. Suddenly, these two humongous White males entered the room and began talking to each other. I didn’t know them, and they never introduced themselves to me. I continued to try to study, but they just got louder and louder. Eventually, I asked them if they would quiet down so I could continue studying, and this is when I began to understand who I was to the outside world. The two men came over to my table and began to taunt me. One said, “Oh, it looks like we’ve made the little nigger mad.” The other said, “Yes, I wonder what the nigger thinks she can do about it.” Well, I was taken off guard, and I definitely didn’t know what to say. I had never been called the “N” word, and I had only heard it used from one Black person to another as a word of affection and familiarity. As these two men continued to call me names, something inside of me began to fall into the pit of my stomach. I wanted to fight, to hit, to scream, to kill them for calling me that horrible name. But instead I said nothing. I picked up my books and left the area, telling myself I couldn’t take them both; they were too big. I hid. I hid in my room and began to look at each person in my classes. I soon discovered that in all of my classes I was the only Black person. I became paranoid. I was depressed and petrified. My mother was not speaking to me because I had moved into the dorm, and everyone else in my family seemed so busy. I didn’t know where to turn. Meanwhile, life at the dorm just got harder.
My roommate was a white Hispanic. This meant she was Hispanic but looked White. She dated a White male and was very confused about who she was. She acted and thought White and began to make racial comments. Her boyfriend was my most incessant source of grief because on some occasions I would wake up with him looking in my face, making a racial comment about me. At a party, he told me he asked everyone to turn the lights on so he could find me. The other women on my floor were just as awful. When I woke up in the morning, they made comments about my hair. When I exited the shower after washing my hair, they made comments about that. The time I blow-dried my hair and it stood out in a huge Afro, they all screamed when I entered my room, where they were waiting to see my hairdo. And let’s not forget the time they kept harassing me because they wanted to touch Black hair. I won’t even mention the times they made comments about how fat I was, although looking back I know I was considered small by all standards; I just had a fuller, rounder figure than they did. I won’t even go into detail about my English composition teacher who, during this same time, wrote on my final paper/presentation that I should consider going into a profession where I could do public speaking, like the entertainment field, because I couldn’t write, and my people were not known for their writing ability anyway.
But with all of this, my breaking point came when an African American male was allowed entry to the dorm, and he proceeded to rob many of the rooms. I was not home at the time, but later that evening the dorm leaders called a family meeting where the robbery was discussed. Many felt I was in on it because I was Black, and others thought he was my friend and wanted me to go get their items back. I sat there in disbelief, fighting back the tears and horror. I found the courage to ask how I could possibly be involved if I was in class at the time. Someone said the man rang the doorbell and was let in. I asked why.
· “He wanted to see you.”
· “Did he ask for me?”
· “No, but he was Black, so I just assumed he wanted you, and I let him enter.”
· “Oh, that makes sense. I know all the Black people in the world.”
· “Well, why didn’t he take any of your stuff?”
· “Because I don’t have anything to take except my underwear.”
It was after these experiences that I began to change my racial identity. I began hanging out with the other Blacks on campus. I joined and attended Black club meetings. I began to take African American studies courses and became friends with some of the instructors. I ran for office in the clubs and soon began running workshops and bringing prominent Blacks to the campus to speak to the student body. Suddenly, I hated those White people, and I wanted them to know it. I started fighting back at the dorm. When they made comments, I became sarcastic. When it was my turn to cook dinner, I made African dishes and made them eat with their fingers. For dessert, I made a chocolate pudding pie with the words “Black is beautiful” written on top. I even invited some of my Black friends over, and, dressed in black, red, and green, we stood in front of the dinner table with our fists held high while the various artists’ versions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” played in the background. I hated the Whites, and I picked any opportunity to make comments, to scare them, and to do whatever I could to regain my sense of dignity and self-worth. I played on their stereotypes of me, and I loved it.
Soon I saw the dorm as a great place because of the benefits of the chef, unlimited kitchen privileges, the guest rooms, and so on and decided I would take it over and make it a Black dorm. I began a huge crusade to get more Blacks into the dorm, and I was successful. The next year six Blacks moved into the dorm, and with them came their friends. It was great, and many of the Whites began to move out.
One day, one of the senator’s nephews who lived there had to be hospitalized for a mental breakdown. The rumor was that the Blacks had driven him crazy. The truth? He made all kinds of racial comments and was constantly confronted. This particular day he was caught writing “Millie and Vanilli” on the room door of a Black girl who was dating an Iranian man.
She caught him and physically attacked him, knocking him to the ground and pouncing him. I thought it was great. He called his uncle, and some important looking men came to get him and took him away, while he cried and blubbered like a little baby.
Life began to take a turn when one of my instructors pulled me and several other students to the side for a group discussion one day after class. During class time, we had become upset with a White student’s presentation. In it, he showed a home movie where all the people in authority were White and all the villains and down-and-outs were Black. We ate him alive, and he was quite insulted. The instructor wanted us to process what happened and told me and the other Black girl in the group that we would have to apologize to him. I laughed and refused. This began the first of many talks with me on racial identity and how to succeed in a multicultural world.
I would like to say that I left college a changed woman. I would even like to say I got through all the stages, and when I entered the work world I was totally open to a multicultural world and confident in who I was as a Black woman. I can’t say that. I did not leave totally aware but hurt and angry and determined not to allow Whites to get close. I had been discriminated against by my peers and quite a few instructors, and I was not going to stand for it.
If I thought I was being put down because of my race, I was going to scream and shout. I was accepted into the minority internship within the psychology and sociology departments, and I began to assist with research projects on racism and multicultural issues during my last year of school. It was during this time that I began to see the racial tension in the world not just toward Blacks, but toward other ethnic groups. I also began to hear positive overcoming stories from Blacks who were able to navigate life despite being discriminated against.
My first job in my field after college was at a women’s treatment facility. One of my coworkers was a young White woman, who was a little older than me. She constantly wanted to talk to me and offered me rides home from work, and it became apparent she wanted to be my friend. One day, I sat her down and told her quite bluntly that I did not want her friendship and that I didn’t like White people, so she should leave me alone. She replied, “Some White people must have really hurt you bad. I’m going to show you we’re not all that way.” She and I are still friends today, and that incident occurred over 10 years ago. Her friendship and my work with clients and on myself helped me to continue to grow and develop a positive racial identity.
This actually sounds crazy, but my White coworker affirmed my Blackness every day. She loved and kissed the children of our Black clients, she spoke of adopting Black children, she was always braiding her hair and even wearing beads, and she ignored all the comments and stares by other Whites. She thought I was smart and never seemed to mind that I was Black. She came to my home, met my boyfriend, and was just a cool person. I even went to her all-White suburb, met her biased mom, and sat in her outdoor hot tub with my coily hair frizzing into an Afro (by the way, her mother is like an aunt to my kids, today, and our extended families get along great).
Currently, I work in an affluent, predominantly White town where I am now one of only two Black police officers. In this capacity, I have felt a lot of strain and stress from my coworkers, and although they won’t say anything to my face, it is apparent that a lot of them operate on some unspoken racial beliefs about my character, and no matter how hard I work, it just isn’t good enough for them. I became increasingly conscious of my figure and body image, my hair became an issue, and I started to watch every word I spoke. Recently, I cut my hair into a really short style as a sort of liberation. I wanted to swim and engage in other activities in which my hair requires too much effort and time (which I don’t have), and I cut it. I have never felt so free. I also began to allow my coworkers to see me in my street clothes, with my stomach or legs showing, as a way of showing I am proud of my figure and who I am.
As I get older and experience life, I am beginning to love myself for who and what I am. I used to cry and wonder why God would make me Black and then make Black the thing people despised and mistreated. Why make me Black and then make my hair so thick and tangly that I can’t comb it or so coily that it sticks straight out? Why make my nose so large along with my buttocks, hips, and thighs? Wasn’t one of these enough without having all of them? And then why make the other people like me confused and full of self-hatred, self-destruction, and color consciousness? I may not have all the answers, but I am confident that I will find them and am learning to embrace myself more.
Julie’s story, though it is unique in many ways, helps us to understand the process and journey that many undergo in the development of a positive racial identity. Her story suggests that the identity development process can be difficult not only because of stereotypes and experiences of oppression from the mainstream or dominant culture but also because of internalized racism and socialization experiences from family and friends. Her story teaches the difficulties individuals face when oppression and racism are internalized, the impact of stereotypes and racism, the effect of socialization experiences with family and peers, and the importance of self-definition.
Race and Stereotypes
The first issue in Julie’s story is the influence that perceptions of race and stereotypes have on identity development and psychological functioning. Julie was raised in a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood. She had few role models of positive African Americans and developed a sense of shame about being Black. Negative stereotypes played a role in her self-concept. Julie indicates that she was concerned about the speech and levels of intelligence of African Americans. Unfortunately, the negative image of African Americans was reinforced through her education; it was not until high school that she was exposed to African American history and heritage and more positive role models. This is a typical experience for many racial and ethnic minorities, who are more likely to be portrayed in the media as criminals, on drugs, less intelligent than Whites, unemployed or underemployed, and on public welfare. The media also often portray challenges experienced in families of racial minorities, including single-parent families and absent fathers, poverty, and violence. Asian Americans are often presented differently as the model minority, high achieving and successful, but this portrayal can be limiting as well and can cause many Asian Americans to be ignored if they are underachievers (Sue & Sue, 2012). All of Julie’s behaviors, values, and decisions were influenced by her perceptions of race. She imitated Whites in speech to be perceived as more intelligent and to be accepted by Whites. After she experienced racism on campus, she began to associate more with Blacks and to participate in Black activities on campus.
Race also influenced Julie’s gender role expectations and views on interpersonal relationships. First, her family experiences caused her to question the role of African American women and men in relationships. This combined with negative stereotypes of African Americans led Julie to believe that African American men were unfaithful and that African American women were destined to be single or single parents. It is important to note that her gender role expectations were colored not only by her racial identity, but also by her family relationships. If both parents had raised Julie, her perceptions might have differed.
Second, Julie’s perception of physical attractiveness was influenced by her race. Julie was faced with images of White women as attractive and was self conscious about her weight, her hair texture and length, and other features. Her level of concern about her appearance was so great that she dreamed of being more White in appearance. Although her self-consciousness might also be exacerbated by her family dynamics, her experience is not unique. Many racial minorities struggle with standards of beauty set by the dominant culture and may internalize a negative self-perception (Greene, White, & Whitten, 2000). Some dye, perm, or relax their hair or use hair extensions to make it straighter, lighter, or longer. At an extreme, some individuals pursue plastic surgery to gain Eurocentric facial features. Julie’s concern with her physical attractiveness certainly influenced her interpersonal relationships and may have placed her in a vulnerable position where men may have taken advantage of her.
Third, racial identity influenced the nature of her friendships and social relationships. During her teenage years, Julie was more interested in being accepted by White people and limited her association with other Blacks. She tried to adopt various speech accents to sound White. The mixed ethnic magnet school allowed her to transcend race, or adopt a raceless persona (Fordham, 1988), an option that is often taken by racial minorities to cope with internalized oppression. Her efforts to change her speech, however, suggest that the raceless stance was not always a successful strategy to use. After significant experiences of racism, she changed her relationships to associate only with other African Americans. Julie’s racial identity influenced her relationships with authority, particularly teachers. She describes an incident in which a professor attempted to lead her to critically examine her behaviors. However, Julie was too hurt and angry at Whites to fully benefit from this experience. Her relationships with coworkers were equally affected because she was initially mistrustful and distant.
The most striking component of Julie’s story is the experiences with racism that she encountered on her college campus. Although college is …
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