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COLUMN ONE : A Dilemma of Race and Gender : The issues of black women have often been overlooked, by their communities and by society at large. But females of color now are seeking their own voice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask Deborah Mack, one of eight black women sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a small apartment, whether she is a feminist and she peers at you with a glare that feels hot enough to sear the paint off the walls.

“What’s the big deal?” thunders Mack, a divorced anthropologist with two children who works at the Field Museum of Natural History here. “I can’t figure out what all the damn uproar is over. I was raised feeling I was equal to men. There’s nothing unusual or feminist about that. Not where I come from, at least.”

“Amen!” shouts Denise Carrillo, 41-year-old entrepreneur who is married and the mother of four. “I was always told I had to be self-sufficient to support my children because even if I found a good man, he may die, he may be killed. So I have always been kind of freaked out by this whole concept that goes ‘Oh, if you stay at home . . . you’re not a feminist.’ That isn’t a real issue in my community.”

A cacophony of affirmation fills the room. Another meeting of the Colored Women’s Eating Club is in session. Tonight’s topic: Do black feminists help or hurt black people, especially black men?

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The question has long reverberated among women in the black community who face even more complex decisions than white women in deciding how far and how loudly to press demands for equal rights. Many have feared, or been warned, that by seeking to better their own lot they may harm black men because the white world will permit the success of either black women or black men--but not both.

Another, larger, problem is that black people are not dealing with gender issues, says Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist. “Sexism and gender issues divide the black community at least as much as economic issues and the strategy and tactics of black nationalism,” Dawson says. “Black unity is not possible without the black community squarely addressing these issues and listening to voices that have too often been silenced.”

Even among the most outspoken black women, the issue of gender differences among black people rarely is placed on the table for candid debate. Never does it share equal billing with the plight of black men. If and when the subject does arise, it goes only so far, remaining within the safety of groups like the Colored Women’s Eating Club, an ad hoc private gathering of like-minded black women in the Chicago area.

Worse than that, say observers, the silence emboldens some black men to believe they can escape responsibility for mistreatment of black women by appealing to the need to protect black men and to preserve racial solidarity.

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Some claim that was the strategy initially employed by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., fired last weekend as executive director of the NAACP. Confronted with allegations that he agreed to pay Mary E. Stansel, a former aide, $332,000 to squelch a threatened sexual discrimination suit, Chavis has argued that “forces outside the African American community” were trying to destroy his leadership.

While many men within the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People opposed Chavis’ decision to use association money to settle with Stansel, none pointed to the issue of gender inequality within the organization, said Lulann McGriff, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch and chair of the counseling department at City College of San Francisco.

“The men were more concerned with the money than how he might have been treating a woman,” she says. “If you look at (Chavis’) top deputies within the organization, you’ll find they were all men. None of the men understand that inside the NAACP, women are the ones who build the stage and the men are the ones who dance on it.”

McGriff said that by the time the board had decided to fire Chavis the concerns involving employment discrimination that triggered the scandal had been subordinated to getting the NAACP’s finances in order. “The women in the (civil rights) movement are fed up and getting tired of having to sacrifice justice for us to preserve solidarity for men who don’t respect us,” she said, noting that some women are preparing to nominate candidates to the NAACP board to challenge the group’s traditional male domination.

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Julianne Malveaux, a San Francisco economist and writer, applauds any move by black women to claim a larger role in traditionally male-led organizations, be it the NAACP or the Baptist church.

“Why are women silent as men make excuses about (their) . . . poor judgment?” she asks. “Our failure to step up to the plate may have placed (the NAACP) in disarray. In some ways, our silence is as indefensible as Chavis’ poor judgment.”

The failure of black people to talk about gender issues, even in private, causes a significant segment of African Americans to believe “black feminists are dangerous” to the cause of black advancement, says Dawson, the political scientist.

Dawson, who is looking into gender relations as a part of his research on black political opinions, says he was surprised by a recent national survey of 1,200 black Americans. In it, 29% felt “black feminist groups just divide the black community.” And, he said, 20% believed women leaders in the black community have “the possibility of undermining the leadership of black men.” Another finding in his study suggests that less than a majority--41%--of black Americans believe the problems of black women are the same as those faced by black men.

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In an interview, Dawson was at a loss trying to figure out the meaning of the study’s findings. “Perhaps the problem is in the semantics of the discussion,” he says. “I believe black people have skepticism about feminist organizations and feel they pose a threat to the cohesion of the black community.”

However, more black women are raising their voices at the risk of being accused of betraying the African American community. As Georgetown University law professor Emma Coleman Jordan sees it, Anita Faye Hill inspired some black women to openly confront gender issues. When Hill, a University of Oklahoma Law School professor, accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her while working for him, many black women were emboldened by her decision to speak out, says Jordan, who served as one of Hill’s attorneys during the 1991 hearings.

“That was a turning point for a lot of black women,” she says.

Jackie Jordan Irvine, a professor of urban education at Emory University in Atlanta, says she also noticed a pronounced willingness among black women to speak out on gender issues after the Thomas confirmation hearings.

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“Since the Anita Hill thing, the tensions (related to speaking out on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination) have been high and remained high,” Irvine says. “It really exposed the black community in ways it had never been exposed. Clearly many black women are not happy with their lives and were saying so.”

Kimberle Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor who has written on gender relations among black Americans for more than a decade, says more than 1,500 black women pooled money to publish an ad in support of Hill and with hopes that it would lead to a black feminist organization. Not much has come of their effort as not enough black women joined their cause.

“They were outraged that they were in the minority, a distant minority, among black women,” Crenshaw says.

Asked if black feminists feel they are crying in the wilderness, Crenshaw nods agreement. “Yes, but the wilderness is coming to us,” she says. “Gender is central to the issues we in the black community consider the black agenda.”

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The perception that the white-led women’s movement is ambivalent or hostile to the concerns of black people scares many black women away, she says.

“There is no framework for talking about feminism in the black community,” Crenshaw says. “When we talk about race, we are seen to be talking about black men and their concerns. When we talk about gender, we’re seeing white women. That’s why the black feminist voice is a lonely one.”

Nobody has counted the ranks of black feminists. However, few black faces generally are seen among the sea of whites who attend abortion rights rallies and women’s rights demonstrations. Those black women who tend to become involved in white-led feminist causes tend to be younger and better-educated than the black population in general--factors that give them the taint of elitism and further strains their links with many in black communities who hold traditional views.

Kimberly Collins, a poet and community activist working for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Washington, echoing an opinion voiced by more than 50 black women across the nation interviewed for this article, says black women and white women see very different sides of the feminist coin.

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“When I think of feminists, I think of white women fighting for rights that black women already have,” Collins says. “I also think of lesbianism and male bashing. I know better because I know that’s an ignorant way of looking at the (white) women’s movement. But that’s what comes to my mind and that’s why I back away from the ‘feminist’ label.”

For that reason many black women define themselves as womanist--a counterpart of feminist coined by writer Alice Walker in her book “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden” to distinguish the set of separate gender issues shared by women of color.

Back at the Colored Women’s Eating Club, where conversation veers wildly from topic to topic but always returns to the personal, Deborah Mack defines feminism as “a middle-class, white, mainstream cultural concept.” She tells the group that taking up the cause of white women is as impractical as her thinking she will ever be a part of the white men’s team at work.

“Just remember I’m a black woman in all of this,” she says, recalling for the group a conversation she had with her boss during her first week at the museum. “So whatever I do here I don’t think will ever be a part of the team. This is a J-O-B for me and you all do not understand what it is for me to join the team because of your own history.”

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Four years later, her boss admitted: “ ‘You know what, Debbie, you were right.’ I knew all along I was not invested as a member of their team--unfortunately. That is something that is a hard reality, but most black women learn it pretty early on.”

Deborah Crabble, host of a talk show at a black-owned Chicago radio station, agrees. “We embrace concepts of family, of unity, of community and we understand that is lacking in their movement,” she tells the group.

The club was founded four years ago because a dozen friends found it difficult to find time to talk with each other amid the pressures of careers, families and big-city life. Once a month, the women share potluck meals at a member’s home. Whatever is said during their meetings is never repeated to outsiders.

Denise Carrillo says the experience of being so close to black women was “rare for me. I didn’t learn how to really have friends until the last four years. It’s been wonderful.”

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A staple of the group’s conversations is how to improve the individual plight of black women--whether losing weight, quitting smoking or raising children--as well as making life better for black people in general.

“Hating men is not what we’re about,” says Deborah Mack.


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