As an African American woman, I've spent the last 25 years, personally and professionally, within the women's movement. I supported women candidates, worked on women's issues, marched in support of women's equality and taught and spoke before women's studies classes. I believed my long-term involvement within the movement made a difference. Until the phone call on Oct. 12.
The caller described herself as an irate L.A. women's group activist with a message for the board of directors of the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League-South. She said she was "incensed, outraged and deeply, deeply offended" that CARAL was not helping to organize the candlelight vigils or the boycotts that resulted from the O.J. Simpson verdict. My explanation that CARAL's priorities were defending women's reproductive rights from an anti-choice Congress fell on deaf ears.
Then, in a low conspiratorial voice, the caller said, "I don't want to get you into trouble, but I'd like to get my message to your board without that black woman who now runs CARAL hearing about it." She was confident that the priorities of "that black woman" were not in the best interest of the women's movement. It took me a moment to realize she was talking about me. And that she had no idea she was actually talking to me.
In that one moment, 25 years of professional and personal commitment were discounted--dismissed because of the color of my skin. I went home physically ill.
I haven't been able to shake that feeling. I still go to work each day. I still meet with legislators. I talk with reporters about the threats to women's reproductive rights. But the nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach remains.
I realize that the anonymous caller was correct in one regard. Each time I leave my office, my priorities are not the same as the majority of the women's movement.
I deal with a store clerk who treats me with less courtesy than the white customer standing next to me. I refuse to accompany the hostess at a Santa Monica restaurant to a table by the kitchen past the better seats her white customers enjoy.
I play tailgate harassment with a white Beverly Hills cop as I drive to the Regent Beverly Wilshire. He follows me for several blocks, slowing down when I slow down, turning when I turn, speeding up when I speed up. He's already run my license plate number and has no legitimate reason to stop me. So he follows patiently, hoping I'll slide a little beyond the stop sign. Or exceed the speed limit on a residential street. Or fail to signal before I turn. I've played this game before. Not getting stopped before I reach my destination becomes my new priority.
If you are black in America, your priorities shift every time you walk into a store or a restaurant or drive down a street.
The brutal murders of Michael James and Jackie Burden in Fayetteville, N.C., on Dec. 7 are evidence of how quickly priorities can shift if you're an African American. The couple were unaware that three white soldiers from Ft. Bragg were on the prowl. Unaware that one carried a 9-millimeter semiautomatic weapon. Unaware that they were targets in a sick game promoted by a neo-Nazi white supremacist group to "hunt and harass black people." At the end of a night of shifting priorities, James and Burden were dead--six bullets pumped into their heads at close range.
So when a leader of the women's movement states that domestic violence provides a "needed break from all that talk of racism," I wonder whom she's addressing. It can't be the families of James and Burden. It certainly isn't me.
Being black in America provides no breaks from racism. You go to school, work hard, raise a family, move up in your profession. You walk a fine line between your world and theirs holding your breath--waiting. For the moment when someone looks at you with disdain and mutters an ugly racial epithet, silently or out loud. No matter how well educated you are, no matter how wealthy you are, you know that day will come.
For some, that day ends with violent and tragic consequences. For others, it comes as a series of slights every day, every week, every year. For African American feminists, racism is not in competition with domestic violence or any other women's issue. It's a package. To suggest otherwise merely demonstrates how far American feminism has to go before it is anything more than a white women's movement.