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My race, but not my gender

I — a black, 30-something woman — couldn't believe it. And that's part of the problem. I realized this the morning after the United States elected an African-American president.

I woke up with the biblical story of the Israelite spies playing in my head, the one where a dozen go to preview their competition before seizing the Promised Land. When they return, only two are willing to go forward with the mission. The others are afraid, perhaps recalling their past slavery in Egypt or their humble life in the wilderness. The Promised Land people are too mighty with cities large and fortified, they tell their fellow Israelites.

"We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes," the spies say, "and we looked the same to them."

I could see myself peering over the ramparts into America's realms of success, cringing at the giants of sexism and racism. But after observing the land, what would my report be?

Before Barack Obama's campaign, I would have likened myself to the fearless two spies, certain that the rights of the Constitution were not only promised to me as a citizen, but also attainable, with hard work and will. I'd like to say that I had no doubt a black person would someday live in the White House, but then Obama won. And I was shocked.

His election and his fight in the Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton force me and other black women to confront some of our doubts and fears. We know that black people are as capable as anyone else; that women are as smart as men. The issue is whether we really believe that we — the double minority — can overcome the giants in the land. Water cooler discussions during the primary race pondered whether America might best tolerate the first viable female or black candidate.

The topic intrigues and confounds me, like trying to separate skin from bone. I grew up in the inner city with the sense that skin color isolated me more than gender from my white classmates across the railroad tracks.

Yet I know that the race vs. gender debate is too complex perhaps to know for sure. Statistics and anecdotes vary. Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau say that median weekly earnings for white women in 2007 were $626, significantly more than black women at just $533 — but also more than black men, who earned $600. A recent St. Petersburg Times article showed that women are outpacing men in college enrollment and completion.

This came after I debated with a black man who partly blamed black women for the demise of African-American families. It's an old argument: The educated black woman is either too domineering or highfalutin. We have ditched our black brothers who don't have college degrees for men of other races or opted to stay single, or so the argument goes. The brother contended that black women have it easier than black men, that white people are less intimidated by us, enabling our rise up the ladder.

I wonder what he thinks now, days after Obama, an African-American man, has become the most powerful person on Earth.

My parents initially hesitated to support Obama. Like my girlfriends' parents, they remembered the past and feared he would be assassinated. My mother, for one, hasn't forgotten the KKK beating her father suffered in the 1950s after suing a white man. I tried to assure them that these were different times. Then came that night, and I watched Obama give his rousing "Yes we can" speech. I still couldn't fathom a black woman standing on the platform, but Obama was evidence of progress.

Yet there, despite the glory of the moment, I couldn't help worry that it wasn't safe for him to be in an open air park like that. I still feared the giants in the land.

Sharon Tubbs is an editor for regional sections of the St. Petersburg Times published in Hillsborough. She can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or tubbs@sptimes.com.

My race, but not my gender 11/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:18pm]
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