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Don’t Forget the Women

With so much media attention focused on the plight of young African American males, I fear that the experiences and challenges African American females face often go unnoticed. This seems to be especially true for those attending predominantly White institutions. As a follow-up to my article, “Where the Boys Are,” appearing in the Spring 2000 issue of Black Issues In Higher Education, I felt compelled to make sure that I, too, did not commit the unpardonable sin of ignoring our young women.
Our young women carry the burden of simultaneously being ambassadors for the race and cheerleaders for our young men. They encourage our males to get involved in university life so they can somehow ease the feelings of alienation.
Although African American females don’t talk too much (at least not with me) about the dearth of African American males at our institution, I cannot help but believe that there are several serious social consequences to this issue. In the words of one African American female, “Finding a man is a challenge because your choices are limited. First, because not many Black males are admitted to the university and the numbers are getting smaller and smaller. So the number of Black women and men is disproportionate. Many African American women feel that African American men are doing a good job surviving and that they should be given credit for being here because they could be involved in so many things that have nothing to do with going to school.”
Over the past several years, I have asked African American females in my sociology class to write papers and to conduct mini research projects and interviews with other African American students about their experiences at the University of Virginia. Through their findings and my own conversations with female students in the Office of African American Affairs, I am getting a better understanding of what it means to be a Black female here.
Two third-year students, Miya Hunter and Chantale Fiebig, voluntarily e-mailed their thoughts to me. They seem to fully understand that the socialization of African American females into womanhood is a complex process, and that the mother-daughter relationship, in particular, is central to understanding their experiences at a predominantly White selective institution. They both agree, as do many others with whom I have talked, that in order for African American women to feel comfortable with who they are at UVA (or any campus), they need to feel strongly supported at home.
Black women often face many challenges in having their voices heard in classrooms. In many cases, students find themselves the only African American in a class. They feel a certain degree of anxiety because they are expected to represent the Black race as a whole. In the face of these issues, it becomes even more important that home is a constant source of encouragement, affirmation and reassurance. It is critical that young women who question themselves at college feel as though they have a source of unconditional acceptance from home.
During the spring 2000 semester, LaTasha Levy, a fourth-year student in my class, conducted interviews and heard that there is often a “coldness” and tension among Black females, too often over males.
African American women often feel compelled to compete in fashion, in appearance and for men. Although this type of competition is often healthy and somewhat natural in male-female relationships, it is also important to take note of what Hunter and Fiebig stated in their e-mail to me: “In order to be here (at the university), they (African American females) are active women who have proven that they possess initiative, an appreciation of education, and a willingness to work hard. None of these strengths should be compromised in efforts to cultivate a newfound social life, to enhance one’s appearance, or to attract male attention. Many women are able to enjoy healthy social lives while nurturing the positive traits that helped them arrive here in the first place. …”
Many African American women recognize that they must address issues of respect for themselves and for each other. They must begin to have ongoing, open and honest discussions about self-esteem, assertiveness and internalized racism.
They must reflect upon how society, their upbringing and/or early experiences with African American women cause them to perceive each other with some level of mistrust and envy. Of course, as Levy noted in her work, “not all African American women have to be best friends, nor should they consider themselves natural enemies.  Sisterhood may in some respects seem Utopian, yet it is definitely something worth striving for.” 

— Dr. M. Rick Turner is dean of the Office of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

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