Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003
AND STILL I RISE:
COMMUNICATIVE RESISTANCE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN
WOMEN IN A CULTURALLY DIVERSE COMMUNITY
Patricia S. Hill
University of Akron
Abstract: Black feminist theory informed an exploration of communicative strategies of resistance engaged by 25 African American women residing in a culturally diverse community. Analysis of the qualitatively collected material suggests respondents utilize many different dimensions of empowerment in the context of everyday life, as revealed in two emergent themes: (1) Resistance by Impression Management; and (2) Resistance as Community Othermothers. These themes are considered salient to the unique circumstances and communicative experiences of these women in their community context.
You may write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies.
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust I’ll rise. . .
Hine and Thompson (1998) maintain that a historically distinguishing aspect of African American women’s experience has been the notion of resistance. Much scholarship on the lived experiences of African American women acknowledges the importance of resistance and collective organizing activities (Amott & Matthaei, 1991; Davis, 1989; Dill, 1988, 1994; Gilkes, 1988; King, 1984; Mullins, 1997). In the context of inequality, many African American women have learned to take action to “rise” above and improve the conditions of their lives by employing communicative strategies of empowerment to resist the oppression that characterizes their everyday experiences.
Resistance, according to Trethewey (1997), is clearly a complex and often subtle phenomenon; and as such, it cannot be reduced to “a list of public behaviors” (p. 284). While it may be inconceivable to resist systematic and structural oppression as a universal occurrence, African American women can resist particular manifestations of power and privilege that characterizes their everyday experiences (Brewer, 1989; Chow, 1996; Collins, 1986, 1990; Dill, 1988; Giddings, 1984; Gilkes, 1988; hooks, 1984; King, 1984; Solomon, 1989; Warwick & Auchmuty, 1995). Such acts are identified as contextual resistance, and may be manifested in varied, immediate and idiosyncratic ways. Many feminists, Black feminists and Womanists laud contextual acts of resistance both individually and collectively as an appropriate strategy for African American women to counter oppression.
An exploration of such countercultures of resistance can offer valuable insight into the unique standpoints occupied by African American women. Moreover, through such inquiry, we can gain increased knowledge and understanding of how acts of resistance inform everyday communicative experiences of African American women at odds with their unique circumstances. Thus, to illuminate these tensions, this study explores the narratives of middle-class African American women residing in a culturally diverse community.
Overview of the study
The purpose of this study is to explore the various strategies of communicative resistance employed by African American women residing in a culturally diverse community. Specifically, this exploratory research seeks to explicate the ways African American women negotiate the cumulative and interactive character of oppression to develop an alternative perspective on the everyday world they live in.
While the community is not named in this paper1 it is characterized as a predominantly European American, “upper-class suburb” adjacent to the southeast border of a large mid-Western city. It is a city that abounds in trees and green spaces with a nationally recognized school system. According to the 1990 Census, of the approximately 40,000 residents, 66.9 percent are European American, 30.7 percent are African American, and 2.4 percent are categorized as “Other.” The current African American population is concentrated in the neighborhoods where housing prices are on the lower end of the housing stock in cost. The mean household income was reported at $80,153. The mean household income for European Americans was averaged at $95,373. The mean African American household income was $44,184.
The city is a nationally recognized model of a suburb that has successfully maintained stable racial diversity. Through community associations, who received financial assistance from philanthropic foundations and individuals, financial incentives are offered to homebuyers, landlords and homeowners for pro-integrative behavior.
The community has instituted a variety of race-conscious housing policies aimed at racial and economic integration. Historically, it has openly sought to promote demands by European Americans for housing, while openly steering African Americans away from areas that were “heavily Black populated” (DeMarco & Galster, 1993). These policies have been subject to criticism by African American community leaders and real estate brokers as being “racially restrictive and demeaning” (Keating, 1994, p. 21). Regardless, the city continues to maintain racial diversity through the enforcement of these policies. It is within the context of this particular culturally diverse community and social structure that African American women in the present study are embedded.
In the sections that follow, African American women’s activism is reviewed, including a discussion of dilemmas of culturally diverse communities to help contextualize the experiences of African American women. An overview of the Black feminist thought that frames this study is followed by a description of the qualitative methodology used to reach the research objectives. Lastly, the emergent themes that evolved from oral history interviews with African American women in a culturally diverse community are discussed. Thus, the phenomenon under investigation in this study are the dimensions of resistance and empowerment that characterize the everyday experiences of African American women in this culturally diverse community.
African American Women’s Activism
History of Activism by African American Women
And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and
planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me--and a’n’t I a
woman? I could work as much and eat as much as any man--when I could
get it--and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t I a woman? I have born thirteen
chilern, and seen most of ‘em mos’ all sold off in slavery, and when I cried
out with my mother’s grief, none by Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman? (Sojourner Truth, 1851). 2
In this “uninvited speech” (Hine & Thompson, 1998, p. 31) delivered at an all-European American rights convention in Akron, Ohio, the voice of Sojourner Truth speaks to the legacy of exclusion and betrayal. This legacy has historically distinguished the lived experiences of many African American women, who have responded to these circumstances with resistance and collective organizing activities (Gilkes, 1988).
Mullins (1997) maintains that the historical significance of activism in the lives of African American women dates back to their enslavement, and is particularly salient to conditions of work and family in the years that followed. She asserts: Within constraints, African American women attempted to maintain some control over their conditions. Though poverty forced many married women to work, they often chose to work as laundresses rather than as live in domestics, increasing the time they could spend with their families and limit as best they could their vulnerability to sexual exploitation. (p. 291)
Collins (1990, p. 141) observes that African American women’s activism is “vigilant action” that seeks to “clothe, nourish, house and do everything necessary to keep the next generation alive while simultaneously maintaining community integrity.”
For many African American women, efforts to sustain the family have gone hand in hand with efforts to assist the community (Collins, 1986; Mullins, 1997). Gilkes (1988) notes that frequently local struggles of resistance and empowerment of African American women became the building blocks of larger political actions to assist the community.
Evidence of African American organized activism can be seen in many manifestations of individual and collective protest. Through oral narrative, African women passed on their legacy of activism and resourcefulness to their African American daughters who adapted these to confront and challenge systems of oppression (Hine & Thompson, 1998). This is evident in scholarly works that have reported African American women’s exceptional acts of resistance (e.g. Davis, 1981; Giddings, 1984; Gilkes, 1988; Hine & Thompson, 1998; Mullins, 1997; Vaz, 1997) as they attempted to transcend a myriad of oppression including race, class, gender, and sexual inequities. These studies are instructive in that they provide critical historical and social analyses of the importance of resistance and organizing efforts of African American women.
African American women’s history teaches that during the 19th century, as European American women were developing the “cult of domesticity” and its associated movements for European American women’s education and social homemaking, free African American women of means were leading a parallel movement for what they termed the “uplift of their race” (Hine & Thompson, 1998). Dill (1988) states that because of the women’s community activities: we were the backbone of racial uplift, and played critical roles in the struggle for racial justice. Black women did not experience sexism within the race movement in quite the ways that brought many [W]hite women to feminist consciousness within either civil rights of New Left politics. (p. 87)
In both the 19th and 20th century, the abolition and civil rights movements predate women’s suffrage and the women’s movement. Similarly, collective efforts that addressed economic deprivation, such as trade unionism beginning in the late 1800s, and Communist organizing in the 1920s were preceded by or simultaneous with race-oriented movements (Dill, 1988).
Contemporary African American Women’s Activism
King (1984) suggests that resistance remains a fundamental concern for contemporary African American women that results from oppression in a patriarchal society. She notes that: Black women recognize the special circumstances of our lives in the United States. . . [we] are aware of the commonalties that we share with all women, as well as the bonds that connect us to the men of our race. (p. 75)
This realization speaks to the intersectionality of race, class and gender as multiple dimensions of the same phenomenon – oppression – that continue to circumscribe the lives of many African American women and provide a distinctive context for African American women’s resistance.
Collins (1990) points out that European American definitions of words such as power, activism and resistance, “failed to capture the meaning of these concepts in Black women’s lives” (p. 140). She further argues that activism for many African American women have taken the form of a struggle for group survival and a struggle for institutional transformation. This attests to the constant acts against the racism, the patriarchal, and class relations that tend to “dominate all too many of our institutions ” (Casey 1995, p. 71), and punctuates the experiences and standpoints of African American women.
Mullins (1997, p. 101) observes that the current repressive environment is problematic for African American women, whom she identifies as the “culture bearers.” She notes that to ensure continuity for themselves, their children, and their communities, African American women must work to contest hegemonic constructs of race, class and gender. Thus, we can see both the historical embodiment and contemporary relevance of the acts of resistance of African American women.
Dilemmas of Culturally Diverse Communities
Demographic change in the larger society has impacted smaller communities in the United States by altering the “complexions” of these communities. Historically, small, culturally diverse communities in the United States characteristically change over time as a reflection of the larger society. Cose (1997, p. 36) contends that for many middle-class African American families residing in culturally diverse communities, there exists a tragic paradox that “haunts their everyday experiences – the better the conditions, the more bitter the tone.” Cose maintains that ever present are the subjective components of racism, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping, reminding them of the precariousness of objective success.
As racial separation and conflict are matters of continuing concern to our contemporary ethos, nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in housing (DeMarco & Galster, 1993; Hacker, 1992; Helper, 1979). In his book, The Suburban Racial Dilemma, W. Dennis Keating (1994) analyzes patterns of residential integration and racial discrimination in housing in culturally diverse suburbs over the past 30 years. His findings suggest that even with numerous efforts made through affirmative housing policies and mandatory legislation to integrate predominantly European American communities, housing and residential neighborhoods still remain racially segregated – largely because of racism.
Feagin and Sikes (1994) maintain that in culturally diverse communities, African American families can frequently find themselves in hostile environments. They argue that:
The move into a traditionally White neighborhood typically begins a new phase in the struggle to create a safe and supportive family milieu. In such neighborhoods, the White repertoire of negative responses can range from violence, to surveillance, to grudging accommodation. Whatever the White response, including acceptance, the dimension of race usually hovers in the background. (p. 248)
In her book, Katie’s Cannon: Womanism and the soul of the Black community, Cannon (1995) also recognizes that the consciousness of oppression hovers as a constant presence in culturally diverse communities. She notes that: The aggregate of the qualities that determine desirable values, uprightness of character, and soundness of moral conduct must always take into account the circumstances, the paradoxes, and the dilemmas that confine Blacks to the lowest rungs of the social, political, and economic hierarchy. Black existence is deliberately and openly controlled . . . The vast majority of Blacks suffer every conceivable form of denigration. Their lives are named, defined and circumscribed by Whites. (P. 59)
Cannon captures the significant role the context of the community can play in situating African American women’s life experiences. The context in which she experiences oppression has a significant effect on African American women’s resistance. Historical, social, economic, and cultural environment intersect with the course of each woman’s life giving rise to countercultures of resistance.
As stated earlier, history reveals a legacy of activism and resistance for African American women, who have been and remain central to social change in the wider society and for survival and uplift within local communities. The centrality and political consciousness of African American women highlights the strategic importance of women to cultures of resistance that operate against the tide within culturally diverse communities as well as in the larger society. From this understanding of resistance, the next section investigates a conceptual approach that reflects upon the unique experiences of African American women.
Black Feminist Thought
Black feminist thought provides a synthesis of a body of knowledge that is crucial to putting in perspective the situation of African American women and their place in the overall society. As one of several feminist standpoint theories,3 Black feminist thought provides a conceptual framework that acknowledges the everyday experiences of African American women negotiating their identities, their relationships with family, and the overall society. Black feminist thought revolves around an understanding of the basis of a shared oppression of African American women, with a recognition of the intersecting nature of race, class, gender, and sexual oppressions in their varied experiences (Collins, 1986, 1990; Dill, 1988; hooks, 1984; King, 1984; Lorde, 1984).
Three overarching themes characterize Black feminist thought as a particular way of seeing reality: (1) Black women’s self-definition and self-valuation; (2) the interlocking nature of oppression; and (3) the importance of African American women’s culture. Black feminist thought privileges the creation of theory from the practice of everyday life arising from reflection on lived experience as “ways of knowing” (Collins, 1990).
Because dominant discourse has historically been male centered and feminist research has not typically encompassed concerns of race, King (1984) notes that the African American woman has experienced a “both/and” orientation. Her experience may be centered on her identity as an African American, a woman or an African American woman. It is the “shared commonalties” of perception and experiences that gives credence to African American women’s standpoint and an advantage of relating to both worlds. While at the same time, Collins (1990) argues there is an acknowledgement of the different and subjective experiences that punctuate their multiple standpoints.
Much scholarship on the experiences of African American women validates the use of Black feminist thought to inform research.4 Hooks (1984) maintains this theoretical approach bridges the lived with the research. As a result, in the integration of the lived experiences with research, the knowledge base of African American women can be extended.
Informed by the assumptions of Black feminist thought, this research examines the ways in which communicative strategies are engaged in a particular social and political context. Instead of a single truth, this study seeks situated knowledge that emerges in the narratives of African American women that will illuminate the “multifaceted nature of their reality” (Collins, 1990, p. 325). Thus, to extend research on the everyday experiences of African American women, the research question guiding this study is:
RQ: How do African American women discursively resist interlocking oppression and redefine their specific context to be more egalitarian?
Central to the methodology of this study is the belief that the essential meanings of women’s lives can be grasped only by listening to the women themselves (Collins, 1990; hooks, 1984). To that end, the method of this study was that of oral history interviews with data analysis utilizing the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) of qualitative analysis as informed by Black feminist thought (Collins, 1986, 1990). The methodology described here is an alternative to Androcentric science and adheres to Dorothy Smith’s (1994, p. 7) admonition “to begin from the standpoint of women,” meaning an epistemology that is grounded in women’s everyday experiences.
Oral history interviews seek to gather data on the lives of women from the perspective of the women themselves. This qualitative methodological approach enables women to be active participants in the research process, generating data unique to this particular approach (Reinhartz, 1992; White, 1997; Yow, 1994). In Oral Narrative Research with Black Women, Black feminist researcher, Kimberly Vaz (1997, p. vii) notes that research approaches that combine oral history interviews with the constant comparison method of grounded theory “allows the unique knowledge domains of African American women to come into full view.” Recent research on the experiences of African American women (Green-Powell, 1997; Reinhartz, 1992; White, 1997) attests that this research design creates new material about and validates African American women’s experiences. Life history methods are compatible with the assumptions of Black feminist thought, because they share an interest in the subjective meanings that people give to the events and social relationships that constitute their lives (Vaz, 1997). Thus, oral history seeks to enable participants to share their thoughts and perceptions freely rather than compelling them to respond to measures with predetermined and pre-established norms.
Oral history interviews for this study were conducted with a snowball sample5 of 25 African American women residing in a culturally diverse community. All women in this study were self-defined as African American. The women ranged in age from 25 to 77. All participants described their class status as middle-class. The majority of the respondents (60 percent) indicated that they were married; six were divorced, three were single, and one was in a long-term relationship with another woman. In terms of education, 16 (64 percent) of the participants reported having master’s degrees and one reported having a doctorate of medicine. Of the remaining participants, all but one indicated they completed high school.
Purposeful or criterion-based sampling (Merriam, 1988) was used in order to define a population from which to gain the most insight. The criteria for selection were predetermined with parameters for respondents’ participation defined by the following characteristics of the women: (a) African American; (b) lived in the community for a good portion of their lives (at least ten years); (c) mentally and physically able to participate in the interviewing process. These criteria were established in a telephone conversation with each participant prior to the interview.
Potential candidates were designated beginning with women identified through personal contacts. Because the participants came to the attention of the researcher through someone they knew and trusted, in a sense, the researcher was not a total stranger.
Researcher and participant relations
Recent scholarship has provided a perspective on the appropriateness and usefulness of this approach to interviewing (e.g., Green-Powell, 1999; White, 1997; Vaz, 1997; Yow, 1994). Marshall and Rossman (1995) suggest that in this type of narrative inquiry as in other qualitative methods, the researcher has a “critical role because the researcher is the research instrument” (p. 69). In line with Black feminist thought, this researcher endeavored to encourage reflexivity on both sides of the critical lens. Moreover, the researcher sought to establish a caring relationship with the respondent and attempted to establish mutual trust and rapport.
Participants in the present study were encouraged to talk in their own words about salient events and experiences and to describe feelings and thoughts they had about them. These life history accounts allowed for the emergence of the participants’ meaning as it is constructed in the present in relation to past realities. Thus, as Reinhartz (1992) notes, such oral history research explored women’s views of reality and maximized discovery and description.
Because it was each woman’s story as she experienced it, and narrated it, the tape-recorded oral history interviews were transcribed verbatim with the exception of false starts, laughter, “uhs,” “ahs,” and stuttering. None of the language and/or grammar was changed. All pauses were noted as “pause” in the transcripts. All inaudible words were noted as “inaudible” in the transcripts. In some cases, the tape recordings were interrupted on the request of the respondent. Accuracy of the transcripts was verified by spot-checking the tapes against transcriptions. While the data may not be replicated, they are considered valid in that they reflect women’s everyday experiences.
The assumptions of the constant comparison process of the grounded theory method aided in the categorization of the data. The qualitative, holistic approach of grounded theory serves as a valuable heuristic in understanding and explaining women’s experiences as they are lived, especially those subjective phenomena that can only be interpreted through the eyes of the beholder (Yow, 1994). The purpose of the approach is the discovery of ways to define relationships among concepts and of processes (Charmaz, 1983).
The strategy of the categorization in the present study was based on the constant comparisons of indicator to indicator, which requires that the researcher comparatively examine indicators and then cluster them by naming them as a class of events, action and/or process. Each class then becomes a cluster category. The process of constantly comparing indicator with indicator enables the researcher “to find similarities, differences, and consistencies among them” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 106).
The first stage in the constant comparison process begins by “comparing incidents applicable to each category” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 106). In the present study, a system of “open coding” was employed whereby the data were examined line by line to initiate the process. The categories were generated according to recurrent phrases or key statements that were noted to symbolize an event or process. During this stage, colored pencils were utilized to distinguish different indicators as they emerged in the narratives.
The second stage included integrating categories and their properties. When a new indicator emerged, it was compared with ones that had already been grouped in the same category in order to determine a “goodness of fit” (Lindlof, 1995, p. 223). These emergent categories were analyzed according to their relation to other data as well as alternative explanations in the data. Lindlof (1995, p. 224) defines this phase of the coding process as a “dialectical process.” Lincoln and Guba (1985, p. 343) maintain that this step moves the analysts “closer to a particular construction of the situation at hand.” During this stage of the data analysis, this study utilized the “cut-up-and-put-in-folders” approach (Bogdan & Bilken, 1982, p. 166). Multiple copies of the data were made. The first copy was used for coding. The second copy was used for cutting and taping. After the categories were first marked to identify their origin in the data text, they were then cut and taped onto clean pages. These were placed into manila folders that were labeled with the categories. The units of data were then examined further for possible assertion.
The data analysis then moved to the third phase where the process attempted to “delimit the theory” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). It was during this phase that the analysis attempted to achieve parsimony. Lindlof (1995) maintains that it is at this level that relatively few new data will be needed. From the refined categories emerged “essential themes” (Lindlof, 1995). At this stage, attention was turned to the interpretative framework to inform the conceptualization of these thematic categories as well as to interpret the patterns of similarities and difference therein. These themes were considered critical in addressing the inquiries of this study. Moreover, these themes served to lend insight to the social action and subjective meaning in the discourse of the women.
The findings of this study revealed that the women in this culturally diverse community explored many different dimensions of empowerment in the context of everyday life. In common with other African American women, who have historically learned to cope and contend with mistreatment in a variety of creative ways, the women in this study also utilized various strategies of resistance to maintain their equilibrium and overcome various forms of oppression.
Communicative resistance is evidenced individually and collectively in strategies that characterize the everyday experiences and self-definitions of the women in this study. This section draws definitions of two essential themes from the literature to provide a frame to understand excerpts from the oral histories. The two themes are: (1) resistance by impression management and (2) resistance as othermothers.
Resistance by impression management
The theme, resistance by impression management, recognized the small acts of resistance that characterized these women’s relationships to their community context on an individual level. Black feminist scholarship argues that in order to survive and succeed, African American women must develop a multiple consciousness (Collins, 1990; King, 1984). African American women resist individually by creating their own identities, and controlling the way other people perceive them (Akinnaso & Ajirotutu, 1982; Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977; Robinson, 1978; Seymour & Seymour, 1979).
In spite of the multiplicity of practices recognized by the women in this study, many of their struggles resulted in a similar outcome: they found an ability to redefine themselves by resisting dominant society’s conventions that frequently positioned them as powerless. In so doing, they were better able to satisfy their needs, be more effectual in their everyday lives, and encourage the aspirations of those that came after them. The voices of the women in this study reveal how they regularly resisted through their own use of impression management strategies, in particular, code switching and masking.
Code switching. Gumpertz's instrumental work on the attributes of code switching (1972; 1982) has shown that much social, interactional, and discursive meanings can be signaled through the alternation of speech varieties in their broadest sense. His findings highlight the importance of language strategies in that “social identity and ethnicity are in a large part established and maintained through language” (1982, p. 71). Of significance to the present study is his argument that: (1) language, ideology and speaking practices are intricately bound together by sociocultural and historical factors; (2) are a reflection of the group's class-structural position; and (3) may symbolize the community's cultural philosophy and value system.
For many African Americans, unique ways of speaking as well as historic and specific narrative forms indicate the strong role of language within the family as well as the community context (Baugh, 2000; Smitherman, 1977). Feagin and Sikes (1994) argue that among the resources that many African Americans use to cope with bigotry is language maintaining. They note that:
[African Americans] often find themselves in situations where so called [italics added] “standard English” is required. They can code switch as the situation demands it, speaking English without a distinguishing accent or grammatical variation that would make their racial identity known to Whites. By erasing the so-called [italics added] “Black accent” which is often exaggerated in the White mind, they can sometimes avoid being victims. (p. 77)
Stanback (1985) observed that the speech of many African American women is generally characteristic of a shifting between mainstream American English and Black English Vernacular due to the dual roles that Africa American women play in their everyday lives.
Masking. Another impression management strategy employed by the women in this study was to utilize masking techniques. Hecht, Collier and Ribeau (1993) argue that this process is particularly common among people who, “occupy two social worlds, such as ethnic minorities, and . . . the establishment and maintenance of identity are problematic due to the competing forces in society that push and pull individuals toward a variety of identities” (p. 53).
Those observations exemplify the famous and still relevant characterization of what W. E. B. DuBois (1903) calls the "double consciousness" that many African Americans experience. In his book, The souls of Black folk, DuBois discusses the frustration that accompanies this bi-cultural experience when he remarked that, “One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” (p. 215). DuBois' conception of two-ness and the conditions required for integration represent a formation of the duality experienced by the women in this study.
Narratives. Under the theme of resistance by impression management, a common form of resistance enacted by the women in this study was through language management strategies, commonly in code switching. The women in this study overwhelmingly recognized managing language in the form of code switching as a necessary strategy in their community as they responded to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misattribution, which resulted in prejudice and negative stereotypes. Their narratives reveal a clear comprehension that standard English is the lingua franca or the common language spoken in the populace; and certainly the language of the business, commerce, and industrial world.
The narratives illustrated an awareness of as need to negotiate the adoption of standard English as their primary language, with the hope that taking these steps will, to some degree, alter the very way in which they and their families were perceived in their community context. Respondent “Hanna Whitehead” succinctly exemplified this when she noted: “When I am around the Whites [in this community], I make damn sure that I am not using Ebonics, you know, I just don’t use certain words, period.”
The salience of language management and not using “certain words” is a recurrent strategy demonstrated in the narratives as a means to subvert existing stereotypical assumptions. This is further exemplified by respondent “Freedom Kessler” who identified Black English as problematic to the type of values embraced by many African American families in this predominantly European American, middle-class community. Referencing the controversy in the Oakland School Board's decision6, she recalled:
I did get upset with [the name of the community] when they brought up this Black English thing. I remember I was at the library and I don’t remember what the occasion was, and one of the teachers who had just come back from a teacher’s convention and they were trying to get Black English accepted, and I was furious about that. This was a White English teacher who thought she was trying to reach these children at their level, and this was what she thought she had to do. There were people at this big national meeting who were promoting that. Fortunately, it got shot down . . . You know if you are trying to teach your children at home to speak proper English and the teachers at school are saying that you don’t have to because you’re Black, well, I would not want my child involved with that.
This excerpt along with other examples in the women’s narratives, noted that a fundamental goal in the socialization of their African American children was to promote methods that would enable them to master standard English. The implication was that they remained “outsiders” until they assimilated to language expectations of their community. Further, there was recognition that indeed the language factor may be one of the underlying causes of poor academic performance. This evoked a vital concern for many of these women whose primary attraction to this culturally diverse community was the promise of better schooling for their children.
The other strategy of resistance through impression management is masking. The voices of the respondents revealed that to address problematic circumstances, there was a common experience--a bicultural experience. Through everyday practices, the women developed and maintained multiple and shifting identities that emerged out of social interaction. As a result, they responded by masking their identities to avert the exacerbation of problems caused by race-based exclusionary practices. The practice of wearing a mask and playing a dual role in their interracial interactions and behaviors speaks to their negotiation of two worthy but often contradictory goals: the struggle for integration and the celebration of diversity.
The notion of masking was clearly illustrated by respondent “Bylana Richardson,” who recalls:
I came out of the community with no fear of racial issues. I think that people who grow up in other communities don’t have that, because they didn’t deal with the dichotomy. That gave us a leg up. They don’t have that confidence and social skills. I am as comfortable with Blacks as White, and I know when I am being tokenized, but I also know that is what you deal with. It is a strategy. You learn when to be bi-cultural. It is a sort of natural thing.
Similarly, respondent “Anita Jones” reflected that many African Americans living in diverse communities have learned to employ these practices in order to be a part of the community. She reflected that:
I can always tell Black people who have been socialized into integrated communities . . . by way they know how to be, to put on that face. You know, I came out of this community with absolutely no fear of racial issues.
These expressions reveal a development of communicative strategies that led to a tremendous sense of confidence in themselves and their abilities to transcend racial borders. In the same vein, respondent “Sylvia Daniels” related that:
In this community, I know that I occupy a position in two worlds. It is really kind of schizoid. When I am around Whites, I put on my whiteface, you know, just like during the Minstrel era – Blacks putting on a blackface to belong. I know to adapt my demeanor to fit into the situation. They think we’re all criminals as it is. But, you know, when I am around my own folks, I can be for real. That’s what we have to do around here to fit in.
Sylvia’s evocation of minstrelsy7 (Bean, 1996) reflects not only a historical shifting and pressure on identity maintenance, but also the contingent influence of race and class. Although minstrel performers were originally Whites impersonating racial stereotypes (depicting African Americans as rowdy, stupid, infantile, lazy, dirty, undisciplined, drunken and sexually promiscuous) for profit, African American performers soon “got into the act.” This afforded one of the few ways for African Americans to get ahead in a White world. Sylvia’s reflection illustrated that similar pressures are a continued concern.
These examples of impression management revealed the strategies of resistance as contextual acts employed by the women to resist stereotypical images and hegemonic attributions that govern interactions. Further, these descriptions of communicative resistance illuminated the multiple consciousness embraced by the respondents as they responded to simultaneous forms of oppressive forces in this context. These findings are in line with scholarship that gives credence to the assumption that as African American women negotiate their everyday experiences in culturally diverse settings, they develop a consciousness of the interlocking nature of the oppression that circumscribes their lives (Collins, 1990; King, 1984).
Resistance as Community Othermothers
A second theme that emerged from the narratives acknowledges the collective forms of communicative resistance common in the experiences of the women under study. Scholarship on African American women’s activism argues for recognition of community activist practices passed down from many generations by their activist foremothers (Collins, 1990; Giddings, 1984). Hine and Thompson (1998) maintain that these acts of resistance were historically accomplished through women-centered networks and education efforts. Women-centered networks offer an alternative conception of organizing than the ones suggested by dominant discourse.
Patricia Hill Collins (1990) argues that African American women’s feelings of responsibility for nurturing of children in their own family networks “have encouraged a more generalized ethic of caring, where Black women feel accountable to all the Black community’s children” (p. 48). Using the concept of “community othermothering,” Collins (199) interprets othermothering as acceptance of responsibility for a child or children not one's own, through a formal or informal arrangement. An expansion of this role enabled the community othermothers to analyze and respond to situations impacting the overall community’s well being.
Gilkes (1988) suggests that the activities of community othermothers are sometimes behind African American women’s decision to become community activists; working on behalf of the community enables members to be able to attain self-reliance and independence. She maintains that, “When Black women invoke this community othermother status, its result can be quite striking . . . specific Black women are widely recognized as powerful fixtures, primarily because of their contributions to the community’s well being” (p. 91).
Narratives. The narratives of the women in this study uncover a myriad of stories where othermothering practices were utilized to address inequities and transcend the challenges of oppressive situations. This is evident in respondent “Billie Jean Mason’s” example of her organizing efforts to negotiate a common community concern:
One time, and I don’t know if it was racial or not but I didn’t like it. My kids got the bus to school and one year they said that our kids would get the bus around the corner. I told them, that my kids were not going to get the bus around the corner. They told me that there were not enough kids around here to warrant a bus. I told them my kids are not going to walk around the corner. I called them to find out what I could do for my kids and the other kids around here, some of them were first graders and it was their first time riding a bus. So, I organized some parents and we wrote a letter and they did re-route that stop.
In another reflection about organizing efforts, respondent “Anita Rowan” found it necessary to address inequities in advancing the collective interests of community children:
An issue came about when I decided to let the girls to be Brownies. Well there were two troops at [name of the school] at that time. That was very interesting. Someone had given me the name of the leader. When I called her she said, ‘well, no we have our quota, we won’t be accepting anymore girls into the group.’ So I said, ‘oh, is that right, well I didn’t know that you had quotas.’ I don’t know if this was a racial thing, she was a Jewish woman, one of her daughters was in my twins’ class and one of her daughters was in my older daughter’s class. She was very adamant about this. There was a Black family who lived nearby who had a daughter the same age as my twins. So I said, ‘well hey, I can be a Brownie Leader.’ I called the Girl Scouts of America to ask how this all worked. They told me there was no such things as a quota, but perhaps help is needed. I thought that I could volunteer, but decided, well, hell no, I don’t want to be in this group, I will be a Brownie Leader. So another Black woman and myself were Co-Brownie Leaders. We had about 20 girls from this troop and I was satisfied.
The passion and commitment that accompanied a sense of caring and advocacy is shown in the motivation of these women not only to use these practices in their personal lives, but to use them to advance collective interest as demonstrated in their role as community othermothers. The narratives revealed that the women in this study found it necessary to evoke a sense of gender/ethnic solidarity and taking on the role of social leadership to help thwart inequities that characterized their experiences in this culturally diverse community. This can be seen in the communal efforts of respondent “Tasha Greathouse,” who discussed the activities of an alternative women’s group. The purpose of the group was to empower women’s self-valuation and ease strain:
We had a Black women’s group, and we had speakers and it was great. That was so comfortable because we came together with none of that whole thing about competition and what you had. It was kind of like porch talk--remember how your mama use to talk on the porch? You know, that was what it was. We would read a book and have discussion of that. A lot of people were teachers, but there were different types of people. I look at how endearing they can be. It was called Black Women in Harmony and that was what we were looking for--to leave all the ugly stuff out and that was basically what it was about.
Collectively resisting dominant bureaucratic processes was a salient issue for respondent “Gwendolyn Tate,” who reflected on her community organizing efforts to subvert constraints. She recalled:
This community is built on lakes and people will have sewer problems until they put in a new sewer. I just couldn’t deal with that. Several of us ended up getting what they called overhead plumbing, which was $14,000 and the city paid 90 percent of that cost because they recognized it was their problem. Well I got a group of neighbors together mostly women, but some men. Well, we told the City that we are paying all this money in taxes and you know we have a problem and you are going to allow it to continue, you know what I mean. Five years of washing up your basement is too long, so they agreed to pay their share of the overhead plumbing for anyone who wanted it.
Respondent “Jada Rogers" shared another example of responding collaboratively to subvert constraints:
I have been involved in a rent strike where I’m living. Another lady and I on the third floor got all these people together and we had representatives from the tenants association downtown, one of the guys from my leadership class, came out to speak to us and represent the Mayor. We have had to fight, but they finally listened to us.
For respondent “Freedom Kessler,” a long-time community member, collective organizing efforts to sustain racial integration, a premium of life in this culturally diverse community, was a matter of continued concern. Her response exemplified a racial solidarity that characterized othermother practices. She notes:
A group of us got together and decided that we would form the Association, which would try to attract White families back in, and that was a conscious, organized effort. The effort was to try to replace a leaving White family with an incoming White family. There were Black and Whites joining in this effort together. We had quite a few open houses, block parties, group activities trying to make the neighborhood better--because we thought there were people who wanted the integrated experience for their family.
Respondent “Bernice Reed” also a long-time resident, describes how inappropriate racial attributions encouraged her community othermothering efforts:
We moved here into this house in 1965. We have always been very active in the community and that has played a big part in shaping the thinking of the family because we were interested in pro-integration. When we moved into our first home, we were the first Blacks on that street to own a home, we moved in September, I remember that because it was a difficult time for all of us. By Spring, all these For Sale signs had popped up. So, that’s when the Association had gotten started, and that’s when we decided that this was wrong and worked hard to prevent that.
In still another example of organized efforts to resolve inequities and a lack of concern, in this case with school administration, respondent “Betty Bazel” reported that she had difficulty with school administrations’ unsuitable treatment of learning disabled students. In order to address this issue, Betty chose to enroll in a seminar that would empower her to help enrich her daughter’s educational outcomes. Betty further shares how this experience was uplifting for her as a mother, and helped her to network with other parents:
I knew that I had struck gold, it just felt right, all of a sudden I realized that it was not because I was stupid, dumb or slow, which is what my parents thought. I knew my daughter was not slow, she was a very bright little girl. But, I think that I was always afraid that this would happen to my kids. I was afraid because I knew I had struggled with school. So, I looked for early signs of this in them. When my daughter had trouble with reading, and I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I knew there had to be something out there. So, when I discovered this, I went to the school district and told them what I discovered, and this was new to them, even as teachers they would say ‘okay’, you know, and I was pushing to see what could be done, I said, ‘so what can you do to help this child, so that she doesn’t grow up to be limited or whatever.’ They were concerned, but they would look to other things like she liked to talk in school. Well, usually kids with learning disabilities have some behavior disabilities or problems because they are frustrated and nobody knows how to deal with them. Well, somehow, I got together with some other parents whose kids were in her same reading group and there were about eight children who all were exhibiting the same or similar difficulties. So myself and these other parents got together and decided, okay our kids had some specific problems. We had my daughter tested in the course of all of this and we had done it privately outside from the school. It was discovered that yes indeed she did have a learning disability and there was only one place at that time that had a program for children with learning disabilities. . . . Well, with this group we were trying to get the schools to acknowledge that this was in fact a problem that had to be dealt with. We went to the school administration as a group and said, ‘look, this is a reality. Here are eight students who are bright children, who are all having some serious difficulty that could impair their future educational careers if we don’t deal with it.’ I had discovered a ruling in the State that no matter what difficulty that a child has, they had the right to be educated by whatever means necessary. If not in the school system, then the community has to pay for whatever additional training was needed. So, that went round and round and we all decided to sue the system over this. So, we really waged a war forcing [the school] to put in special learning programs and classes for children with learning disabilities.
While the school district in this particular suburban community has been recognized nationally for its achievement, there is an imbalance in the educational outcomes between European American and African American students. Frequently, the narratives captured how these African American women were critical of school practices where their children were habitually tracked, placed disproportionally in special education, withheld from educational opportunities, and on and on. The explanation given by several respondents suggested a presumption that their children were considered inferior--intellectually unsuited for advanced forms of reasoning and certain educational venues. This was a troubling dilemma because for many the decision to live in this community was prompted by the desire to provide their children with the best education as possible. Thus, the narratives promoted awareness of the vital role of community othermothering in culturally diverse communities in helping to thwart the acceleration of inequity.
In discerning how African American women discursively resist oppression and redefine their specific context to be more egalitarian, this study explored the range of practices of communicative resistance to unique circumstances of their lives. The two themes that emerged, impression management and othermothering, were considered as salient acts of resistance to injustice and efforts of empowerment by the women in this study. The narrative accounts illuminated a vibrant picture of African American women as significant actors in the everyday communicative practices in their culturally diverse community. Further, these narratives brought to light African American women’s oppression in culturally diverse communities by revealing their negotiation of being both “outsiders” and as “agents of change.” Too often, discussions of domination and oppression presumed the oppressed are either helpless and defeated victims or as selfish and greedy. The women who participated in this study are neither of these. Instead their stories made evident that they were dynamic, multidimensional individuals rather than essentialized victims. They acknowledged their constraints without acquiescing to them. This reflects Collins’ (1990) notion that African American women’s experiences are political and social, and multiple forms of marginalization compel African American women to resist in varied and idiosyncratic ways.
The theme Resistance by Impression Management illustrated the utilization of individual strategies in the form of impression management as a contextual act of resistance. Through code switching and masking behaviors in their interactions, the women in this study sought to diffuse externally driven stereotypes and assumptions of their identities. Such assumptions can clearly negatively affect community relationships by objectifying and dehumanizing African American women as subjects of domination in an oppressive society. The narratives provided windows into an African American middle-class world where they were not accepted as equals by many of the European Americans they encountered in their daily lives. While they may have greater resources with which to respond to discrimination than less affluent African Americans, the presence and use of these resources appeared to have little lasting effect on the magnitude of prejudice and stereotyping that still operated indiscriminately.
The theme Resistance as Community Othermothers illustrated the varied acts of resistance that the women in this study engaged in on a communal basis. These moments of resistance sought to challenge and negate relations of power and bureaucratic forces in their culturally diverse community. Negative attitudes about African Americans and women were inscribed in community policies that had influenced housing, schools and services in this culturally diverse community. In their personal accounts, the women in this study revealed blatant examples of how their housing issues and other choices were impacted immediately or indirectly by racist attitudes and actions. These actions made clear that these women and their families remained marginal in this community.
Feagin and Sikes (1994, p. 101) have argued that views held by many government policy makers reflect an unwillingness “to come to grips with racism” in these culturally shifting communities. Such is the case for the women in the present study who were situated in a culturally changing suburban community. They too negotiated many exigencies that resulted from the dilemmas of race, class and gender oppression.
As they entered where few African Americans have entered before, the women in this study divulged a realization that despite their statuses, privileges, and success, they were still Black women in a racist community. This is demonstrated in numerous incidents of discriminatory practice, stereotyping, and prejudiced attitudes that constrained and shaped everyday experiences. Through communal strategies of resistance enacted to create change, the women resisted bureaucratic dominance and responded to specific policies that constrained them, thus, enabling them to redefine their everyday experiences in this situated context. This confirms Kathleen Casey’s (1995), argument that "there are many women who in their daily lives perform constant acts against the racism and the patriarchal and class relations that tend to dominate all too many of our institutions" (p. 71). The varied narratives of the women in this study suggested ways in which their voices can help redefine their community context on more equal terms. Moreover, they attest to the combined effects of class, gender, and racial oppression that continue to punctuate interracial and interpersonal relations in culturally diverse communities.
All together, these accounts revealed that the African American women in this study were keenly aware of the structural oppression and specific instances of power and privilege that distinguished their experiences in this culturally diverse community. However, in the spirit of resistance, they overcame obstacles and developed contextual standards for their own self-definitions, as well as their relationships with family and community. The narratives of these women rendered direct testimony to the experiences of the intersectionality of oppression. The candid descriptions of their experiences as African American women in this context provided an important base for which to begin to understand the effects of oppression on individuals.
Communicative resistance for these women took the form of a struggle for individual and group survival as well as a struggle for institutional transformation. As Oliver (1991) notes, such resistance can cause ripples of change. These creative resistance practices are important because they empower the individual women and set the stage for empowering the larger community. Empowerment, writes Simon (1990, p. 28) can be understood as “one’s perceived and actual ability to determine one’s life and community.” Such attacks on subordination and moments of resistance deserve continued attention by scholars because they can “highlight the fragility” of systems of domination (Trethewey, 1997, p. 283).
The results of this study should be viewed in light of the following limitations: the sample size was small and not random. It is important to note that these findings cannot be generalized to the overall population of African American women. The findings do suggest, however, that communication scholarship can benefit by the continued examination of the ways individuals in general and African American women in particular articulate resistance to oppression. The exploration of communicative resistance can lend meaningful insight into issues of power and identity because as Pringle (1988, p. 96) observes, power relations are processual and involve “strategies and counter strategies of power.”
The continued study of the forms of resistance among African American women in culturally diverse communities as they challenge oppression can expand our understanding of the meanings of power and struggle embedded in these communities. Further, the study of resistance that seeks to subvert formations of power is important to those whose charge is the dissemination of knowledge, because our recognition of the source of our oppression informs what we do about it.
1 Out of respect for the very tensions they experience, careful consideration is given to ensure confidentiality and anonymity to a group of African American women who are easy to identify because of their limited numbers.
5 Snowball sampling is a special non-probability method used when the desired sample characteristic is rare. Snowball sampling relies on referrals from initial subjects to generate additional subjects.
6 On December 18, 1996, the School Board of Oakland, California made headlines when it passed a resolution directed at developing improved methods for teaching Standard English to students of African American descent. Seizing on a "new" term “Ebonics” [which was actually coined decades ago at a 1973 conference on Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child held in St. Louis Missouri] and equating it with a couple of synonyms like "African Language Systems," the School Board spoke in terms of recognizing the worth of “Ebonics" as a language, and calling it "not a dialect." For discussion of the Oakland School Board decision, see Williams (1997).
7 Minstrelsy is characterized primarily by the use of "blackface" (typically burned, pulverized corks mixed with water or petroleum jelly). Blackface served as a racial marker, suggesting that the performer would be portraying aspects of African American culture. It also served as a type of mask to shield the performers from identification with their roles. Bean (1996), Cockrell (1997), and Mahar (1999) provide a comprehensive overview of blackface minstrels.
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