The Road Less Traveled

During Harvard’s landmark Black Alumni Weekend, hundreds of Harvard’s most distinguished African-American graduates convened to celebrate the legacy of blacks at Harvard. Participants in this historic event were able to reflect on the black experience—encompassing everything from the impacts of randomization to the building of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

But this evening, the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW), with Latinas Unidas (LU) and the Asian American Association (AAA) are going to endeavor to bring specific focus on one remarkable yet overlooked identity group, whose experiences deserves particular mention.

Tonight’s “Road to Success” panel will focus on giving successful black women—along with other women of color—time in the spotlight.

In today’s world, which sets up enough roadblocks for women and minorities independently, focusing on how successful professional women of color have overcome these double barriers is a phenomenon worth closer scrutiny. For black women, it seems that in a hidden and unprofessed way, we often choose being ‘black’ over being ‘women’; to choose otherwise would be some sort of tacit betrayal of our race. We therefore find ourselves denying the ways in which our identities both as minorities and as women are both deeply important to our experience.

What does this intersection of being a racial minority and being female mean for those who live it? Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia Law School writes, “The consequences of this multiple marginality are fairly predictable—there is simply silence of and about black women.” This deafening silence leads not only to a dearth of information on the experience of women of color as a whole, but also minimizes the unique identity of women of color as individuals.

To be sure, it is no secret that women of all races have been historically barred from acceptance within the careers of business, law, journalism or public service. It was not until the 1960s, 70s and 80s that serious social and legal pushes forced the American workplace to progress in terms of gender politics. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed, requiring equal wages for equal work. And it wasn’t even until1980, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finally affirmed sexual harassment as an unlawful employment practice.

However, the interplay of these gender advancements with racism and race politics is a far better kept secret. The advancement of women of color within the American workplace and beyond is not a topic of widespread political interest. Professionally, women of color have struggled to surmount impediments to tenure and upward mobility, faced difficulties in creating minority women-owned businesses and entrepreneurial ventures and confronted the problem of being historically cut off from the social networks that enable career expansion and promotion. The specter of sexual assault and rape within the minority community and lack of knowledge about, and treatment of, critical health concerns are examples of the insidious effects of this pervasive silence surrounding intersectionality.

But the discussion of these issues has proven, in the minds of some, to be at best peripheral and at worst divisive. The tragic irony of the separate treatment of ‘black issues’ and ‘women’s issues’ is that each group’s struggle for recognition followed similar tracks. Just as the 1960s represented a watershed era in the Civil Rights movement, 1970s proved a critical era for women’s struggle for full citizenship—each appealing to mass demonstrations and appeals to the Supreme Court, to amplify their impact.

But if the ‘black and white’ dialogue continues to ignore the ‘black and female’ dialogue, how can we hope to include the panoply of ethnicities who face their own unique challenges? Do women of Asian and Hispanic descent also traditionally privilege their racial identity before their gender? Or is there some other dynamic that various racial groups bring to the table that will enhance our understanding of women’s experiences in the workplace?

By creating a forum for discussion on such a neglected topic, Road to Success will provide the Harvard community with the chance to learn firsthand how four successful women of color have effectively navigated their identities in the workplace.

Without a doubt, being doubly marginalized is a burden all too often unseen and unacknowledged. But perhaps the professional advancement of those who lie within this intersection of gender and race can expose the reality of just how far America’s workplace has come—and how far it has yet to go—in achieving true diversity.

Helen O. Ogbara ’05 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. Angela A. Smedley ’04 is a sociology and Afro-American studies concentrator in Lowell House. They are president and vice-president respectively of the Association of Black Harvard Women. “Road to Success” will be held in Science Center D from 7 to 9 p.m. this evening.