The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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When Getting Along Is Not Enough

Maureen Walker When Getting Along is Not Enough bookIf conventional wisdom is to be believed, women are notoriously good at getting along. Cultural pundits, from scholarly theorists to political wags, suggest that women are better suited and somehow more prone to connect with others for good. This notion may have a certain surface appeal, particularly to those of us who want to promote healing in a world marred by mortal violence and near-normative violations of human dignity.

However, women who dare to change worlds know that getting along is not enough. Just getting along allows us to be friendly neighbors, cooperative colleagues, best friends, and maybe even intimate partners. But it is not enough to allow us to build authentic, in-depth connections that bring out the best in ourselves and others, and in our society as a whole. In order to do that, we must delve deeper and ask ourselves hard questions—particularly, as we honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., around the issue of race.

After the 2016 election, analyses and demographic parsing revealed entrenched racialized divides among women. Race emerged as an undeniable constant: as a signifier that gives meaning to our lives, shaping our beliefs about we are, who we can be, and how we should be regarded by others. Furthermore, race delineates the parameters of belonging and determines the measure of worth we accord others—how we perceive their credibility and deservingness, and how we enact power in our relationships with them.

Although the notion of race itself may be a biological fiction, it is a political reality, one that has functioned as a pernicious strategy of disconnection, violence, and violation. Whether through collusion, co-option, or coercion, women are deeply implicated in sustaining the norms and systems of racial disconnection.

Women of good will (and that, I believe, includes most of us) regularly enact racialized ideologies in real life. Indeed, these ideologies may be in large part cultural legacy, implicit yet potent, unknown even to ourselves. We can begin to know how race shapes our relationships by observing our habits of disconnection. For example, what are the feelings and thoughts we dare not express to someone of a different race—even when that person is dear to our hearts? Certainly not all feelings and thoughts are meant to be shared; some are private and rightfully so. There is, however, a distinction to be made between privacy and secrecy.

Privacy may represent thoughtful restraint, in service of further growth in the relationship. Secrecy, on the other hand, is a habit of disconnection that functions to protect and preserve a preferred image or narrative. Such withholding creates “dead zones” in a relationship. We might observe how and under what circumstances we create these “dead zones.” How big and unnavigable do we believe them to be? How readily do we criticize “them” and what “they” are like when we are in same-race company? What parts of ourselves and of our experience do we withhold in order to preserve and protect the appearance of connection, rather than allowing ourselves to be more fully known and present in a relationship? This is a habit of disconnection that stifles our desire for connection and belies our intentions to engage the richly textured realities that define our shared humanity.

I wrote When Getting Along Is Not Enough as an invitation and a guide for remaking the meaning and function of race in our lives. One of the practices that enables this transformation is what I call “disruptive empathy.” The two words don’t flow easily together, intentionally so, because empathy is not an easy skill. We tend to think of empathy as demonstrations of niceness, kindness, and caring—laudable actions all, but not stand-ins for growth-fostering empathy.

A popular metaphor that more accurately captures the disruptive dynamics of empathy is “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” To walk in another’s shoes implies at minimum the willingness to shed our own. This process is disruptive because it requires a certain level of willful de-stabilization. Specifically, we have to loosen our attachment to the narratives about self and other. We must be willing to be surprised and accepting of parts of ourselves we previously found embarrassing or shameful. In other words, the anchoring value of disruptive empathy is courage, not comfort.

I like to describe disruptive empathy as a dynamic process facilitated by three intentions: awareness, respect, and compassion. Here are just a few of the questions that facilitate the movement through this experience.

Awareness: What am I feeling and thinking? Desiring? Remembering? Is there a cherished narrative or image that I want to shield from scrutiny?

Respect: What is the purpose of this encounter? Am I trying to win? Placate? What might happen if I risk genuine curiosity about this other person?

Compassion: How did this person come to be where she is in this encounter right now? What aspects of our shared humanity is this encounter revealing? Under what conditions do I speak, interpret, and behave similarly?

When Getting Along Is Not Enough is not a mandate for forced harmony. It is an invitation to shed the illusions that allow us to settle for the appearance of harmony, rather than richly textured and authentic connection. It is an invitation to transform the life-limiting imagination of who we can be and how we must engage each other as racialized beings. This book is intended to help us on a shared journey of healing and ask: How might we dare to change worlds? Who, together, might we become? And most important, are we willing?

Maureen Walker, Ph.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a founding scholar of the International Center for Growth in Connection, formerly the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. She is the author of When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships, a book that offers a roadmap to personal transformation and cultural healing to repair the damage wrought by racism.

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Beyond #BlackGirlMagic: Representation in Mentoring Matters

Black Girls Create Activity Being Black and a girl--in a society that assigns negative stereotypes to individuals based on one’s race and gender--is often wrought with challenges. Negative stereotypes that have been assigned to Black girls and young women are based on historical controlling images such as the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire that were created to justify white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal cultural norms of racism, sexism, dehumanization, domination, exploitation, and oppression (Hooks, 1981; Stephens, Phillips, & Few, 2009).  Over the last few years, social media hashtags have helped to bring the marginalized experiences of Black girls and young women to the center of society’s consciousness. Hashtags such as #sayhername, #blacklivesmatter, #ifidieinpolicecustody, #thisiswhatadoctorlookslike, #blackgirlsmatter, #bringbackourgirls, #growingupblack,  #staymadabby, and #blackexcellence have provided global spaces to discuss and bring awareness to the complexity of growing up Black and female in America. The #blackgirlmagic hashtag phrase is used to recognize, congratulate, and commend Black girls and women who have demonstrated extraordinary strength by debunking negative stereotypes and achieving success.  In 2013, CaShawn Thompson began using #blackgirlsaremagic to celebrate the beauty, power, and resilience of Black women and girls (Wilson, 2016).

While social media platforms provide viable opportunities for Black girls to disseminate diverse images of Black women and girls, it is equally important for them to have access to and connect with mentors who represent their race, gender, class, and lived experiences. Evidence suggests that Black girls who have access to relatable, adult Black women who are able to connect with them in unique ways have lower academic, social, and cultural risks than Black girls who do not have access to gender and race-matched mentors (Lindsay-Dennis, Cummings, & McClendon, 2011; Watson, 2016).  Gender and race-matched mentors, particularly those are viewed as successful in their communities, provide unique opportunities for Black girls to connect with role models who have “lived through” similar experiences and achieved success despite their circumstances.

Mentor Advises ParticipantsIt's important for Black girls to have mentors who represent their race, gender, class, and lived experiences.Positive mentoring relationships are not only beneficial to mentees, Black women mentors show psychosocial gains from their interactions with Black girl mentees (Brown, 2009; Green & King, 2001;Gamble 2014; Lindsay-Dennis, Cummings & McClendon 2011).  The positive outcomes that could be gained for the Black girl mentees and Black women mentor can be best described using two of the four principles of of Black Feminist Epistemology (Collins, 2000). Principle #1: criteria for meaning argues that those individuals who have lived through the experiences in which they claim to be experts are more credible than those who have not. Essentially, this translates into credibility and trust in mentoring relationship between Black girls and Black women. Principle #2: use of dialogue in accessing knowledge encourages connectedness and provides contexts for Black girls and women to connect on a deeper level.

Noted Black Girlhood Scholar, Ruth Nicole Brown (2009) inquires, “What kind of a space could be created where Black women and girls could come together and be recognized and valued for our diverse ways of being--where we could see ourselves and/or high, but above all, be recognizable and accountable to each other (if we so chose)?” My response to this question is that safe spaces within and outside of social media are needed for Black girls and women to debunk negative stereotypes, empower each other, and cultivate relationships that lead to positive outcomes.

LaShawnda Lindsay-DennisLaShawnda Lindsay-Dennis, Ph.D., (pictured in the top photo above) is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she leads The Black Girls Create Project, a culturally responsive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program seeks to increase underserved girls' interest and confidence in science and math through mentorship and practical experience.

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Poverty, Black Women, and HIV

About twenty years ago, I received some unbearable news about a dear friend.  A highly intelligent, strong, and beautiful woman of African-descent revealed to me that she contracted HIV as a result of having unprotected sex with a man who had the virus. Twenty years ago, I was convinced that the virus was an automatic death sentence for my friend. Thankfully, with advances in medical technology, not only is she still with us but she is healthy and thriving. However, keep in mind that she has the necessary resources that are needed in order to take care of herself, so she can successfully manage her overall health. She is middle class, has a good health insurance plan, has access to the appropriate health care, and has a supportive social network that encourages her to maintain her health.

However, the reality is that many Black women who contract the virus are not as fortunate as my friend. Black women mainly contract the virus through sexual activity with infected men. Many who contract the virus not only must live with HIV but also poverty. As a result, there are higher morbidity and mortality rates among Black women as compared to other racial communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are 18 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than are White women and due to lack of resources have an increased chance that they will die from AIDS. The theories surrounding this staggering racial disparity are complex. However, much of the discourse among published research discusses poverty as one of the main risk factors for the contraction of HIV among this marginalized group.

Research has demonstrated that poverty and HIV are inextricably linked. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 20 percent of Blacks live in poverty vs. only eight percent of Whites. An impoverished woman is much more likely to have an insufficient education about sexual health practices, less access to proper health care, as well as a reduced amount of access to appropriate contraception (i.e., condoms). In addition, research suggests that life stressors fueled by poverty can be the catalyst for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Such sequela may affect the sexual behavior/practices of women living in poverty that are detrimental to overall health.

This problem is systemic and multifaceted. Addressing this issue through actions based upon the ideals of social justice is key to preventing its escalation. There are several organizations that are dedicated to addressing HIV among Black women including the Black Women’s Health Imperative and the National Black Leadership on HIV/AIDS.

Katherine E. Morrison,KatherineMorrisonPhD Ph.D., is a former post-doctoral intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women.  She is currently the coordinator of the Health & Wellness major at Curry College, Milton, MA. She specializes in the prevention of disease and injury among marginalized populations including communities of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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