'Sistas vs. Sistas': Are Black Women At Odds?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the surprising sound of a hip-hop artist who makes a musical statement by combining beat box with his chosen instrument, the flute. Nathan Lee and the art of flute box is just ahead.
But first, we take a closer look at one of the articles we discussed in yesterday's Magazine Mavens. It was a story published in the most recent issue of Essence magazine, and it's called "Black Women Behaving Badly."
The piece argues that there is a level of rudeness, meanness, dare we say it, hateration(ph), that seeps into even routing interactions among many black women. Where's the sisterhood among the sisters?
We felt this topic warranted a closer look, so we called Katrina Bell McDonald, who's a sociologist with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is quoted in the piece, and she's also the author of "Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity and Contemporary Black Women."
Also with us, Omarosa Manigault Stallworth. She shot to fame as a contestant on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" and has appeared on several reality TV programs since and authored a book, and some people think she's kind of mean. So we wanted to talk more about this. Thank you all so much for talking to us.
Professor KATRINA BELL MCDONALD (Sociologist, Johns Hopkins University; Author, "Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity and Contemporary Black Women"): Absolutely.
MARTIN: First, I wanted to ask each of you the same question I asked of the Essence editor, which is: Do we really believe that relationships among black women are more raw, more difficult than among women of other groups?
For example, the New York Times…
Ms. OMAROSA MANIGAULT STALLWORTH (Reality Television Star): I just have to kind of stop you on the introduction. You said: And people think I'm mean?
MARTIN: Well, isn't that kind of your reality-show identity?
Ms. STALLWORTH: Well, I did "The Apprentice" six years ago. If people are still tracking a reality show that I shot six years ago and defining my reputation by that, then I think they're misinformed, and I don't want…
MARTIN: But that's a part of our conversation, Omarosa. That's why we asked you to talk about that.
Ms. STALLWORTH: I don't want that perpetuated in the introduction because it goes from moving from being conceptual to being factual, and that's just really not the case.
MARTIN: Doesn't your Web site have on there: Omarosa: Naughty or Nice? Isn't that kind of part of your identity as a performer?
Ms. STALLWORTH: There's no question that part of my identity on television, in the context of a game show, there is the idea that when a woman walks into the boardroom, and she's tough, and she's a go-getter, she gets labeled - she's looked at in a negative context. Oh, certainly.
MARTIN: But you're posing in a devil costume.
Ms. STALLWORTH: A very, very sexy devil costume.
MARTIN: So you're playing on being mean, right?
Ms. STALLWORTH: A very sexy devil costume, but there's no question that there is a duality in my television character, but when I leave the set of "The Apprentice" or "The Boardroom," then that's there I leave that particular character.
MARTIN: Okay, well, why don't we return to the subject of the conversation. Katrina, you wanted to pick up on that, so proceed.
Prof. MCDONALD: Sure. I mean, I'm listening to my sister, Omarosa, and I'm drawn also to what's also portrayed on the Web site, and I think that black women often do struggle with the image that they want to put out to the public because the public has a certain kind of expectation.
So certainly, even before Omarosa opened her mouth the first time on "The Apprentice," there were some of us who assumed that this character would be played out in the way she played it.
I think what she's suggesting is she could very well have played it a different way, too. The bottom line is that it's all these expectations that are floating about that I think put black women in a certain kind of posture either to believe in the myth or to play into the myth.
MARTIN: I want to go back to the original question. Do you think that the relations among black women are more fraught than among women…?
Prof. MCDONALD: I am not - I am absolutely not convinced that African-American women's relationships with another are more difficult than, say, among the Chicano women, Asian woman and so forth.
I think African-American female relationships are much more public. We probably, as a culture, have been portrayed in probably more novels, in more TV shows and movies and so forth for the world to see, but I think African-American women have been over-exposed, in a sense, and that has allowed a lot of this imagery to flourish, which is not to say that you are not going to find poor relationships among black women.
MARTIN: Omarosa, what do you think?
Ms. STALLWORTH: You know, certainly every now and again you'll meet a sister who is not in a healthy mind-state, who's, you know, struggling with her own issues, but I don't make that a part of my own experience. I mean, that's her issue.
You know, I don't see any mainstream - having panels about black women being mean. Sometimes I think that we as black media, or members of the black media, tend to perpetuate it more than any of the mainstream media because we analyze it, and we actually make the construct real.
MARTIN: One of the questions that the article asked - and that Katrina, in fact, you write about - is, is there a higher expectation of fellowship or of intimacy or of warm relations, and when that is not met that there's more disappointment?
Prof. MCDONALD: I absolutely do believe that African-American have been built up as a group of women historically bonded together, fighting together, surviving together. We've progressed through similar successes and failures, and so our experiences can be thought of as collective and cultural.
MARTIN: Well, there are two pieces of it I think might be worth sort of separating. One is the female piece, and one is the racial piece. Do you think there is an issue of meanness in the workplace between women?
Ms. STALLWORTH: Oh, there's - it's documented and has been extensively researched that that is the case. And what's more is that there is not a whole lot of solutions to deal with it. It's hard to indentify. It's hard to reconcile once a person brings a complaint to HR. And in terms of the word meanness, I think I'd have to look at that in the context of the workplace as a whole.
I've worked male bosses who I think have, you know, have been the devil incarnate, you know. And you talk about meanness, it has to be examined in a vacuum. And in that vacuum, in our case, we're talking about who bully. But men who do it, again, are not labeled the same way, and their behaviors are not addressed or dealt with in the same way.
Prof. MCDONALD: Not at all.
MARTIN: What about the racial aspect of it?
Prof. MCDONALD: One of my very first jobs I had was at the San Francisco Chronicle Examiner. I was a market research analyst, and I purposely took that job because the woman who ran the office was a well-educated, brilliant black woman and a sorority sister. And I thought perfect for me at 22, 23 years old. You know, I'll be nurtured under the wing of this marvelous woman. She was a something in disguise.
MARTIN: She was horrible.
Prof. MCDONALD: She was horrible. She just made my work day a living hell and…
MARTIN: And that loops back to my earlier question.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Do you think you had a higher expectation of her behavior to nurture you…
Prof. MCDONALD: Oh, I absolutely did.
MARTIN: …than you would have if she were so other demographic?
Prof. MCDONALD: But you know what? But she also alluded to that in my interview. I mean, I had that expectation, but she also suggested that this is an opportunity for her to nurture me. And so, yeah, I had the expectation, but I think, quite honestly, she became a bit concerned that I might surpass her in the long run.
MARTIN: You know, how about the personal aspect of it? I'm going to just quote from the article now. It says: "One reason it's hard to ignore or simply overlook the insecure and combative nature in some sister-to-sister relationships is because in pop culture, they show up everywhere. Venomous exchanges among black women are more than acceptable. They're commodified and sold. The spectacle of 14 beautiful women piling into a house for weeks, verbally ripping one another apart for the affection of one man - a la VH1 shows like 'Flavor of Love' and its successor 'For the Love of Ray J' - has become the guilty pleasure of millions of us. 'The Real Housewives of Atlanta,' a gossip-filled hit on Bravo that follows the lives of five of that city's wealthier women, even decided not to invite one black cast member back for season two because, as she told Essence.com, she failed to provoke negative controversy."
Is there something that needs to be addressed, or is this, in essence, a media issue?
Prof. MCDONALD: I think it's a media issue, but I think it needs to be addressed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. MCDONALD: You know, I think we need to have conversations, whether it's within our schools and academies or wherever, reminding black women not to get caught up, to examine their own personal relationships and see how much they're simply acting out what they see and not what they truly believe. Because I've been friends with women who I felt like, what are you doing? You know, you're imitating someone. This isn't you, you know, in how…
Prof. MCDONALD: …in how you're choosing to interact with me and everybody else. So sometimes you have to call people correct, and a lot of what we're needing is for black women to get to know themselves again. And so many black women are casting themselves as something other than what they authentically are. And I think we have to talk about loving ourselves.
MARTIN: But who is to determine what they authentically are? I think…
Prof. MCDONALD: Ultimately…
MARTIN: …if they're reflecting certain behavior, they're reflecting their behavior.
Prof. MCDONALD: Ultimately yes, they are their own authentic makers. But I know women who, when you call them to that question, actually kind of, you know, pause.
MARTIN: Omarosa, what's your take on this?
Ms. STALLWORTH: Well, I first what to point out that, you know, we, 10 years ago at NABJ, we were talking about the lack of black women on television and continue to lack the numbers of African-American women on television. And we just really can't have it both ways. We can't beg and beg and beg to see more black women on TV, and then the moment that we see more black women on TV, we criticize their portrayal and we criticize their interactions and we criticize their authenticity. There are some sisters who are just hood. There are some sisters who very aggressive. There are some sisters who have really sharp tongues, and that's a part of this whole spectrum of black women. But we can't have it both ways.
And then when you say what needs to be done, I think everybody has a personal responsibility. I don't know that we have to have some national meeting where we start to modify the behaviors of black women because we disapprove of that particular behavior.
Prof. MCDONALD: Yes, I think we actually do.
Ms. STALLWORTH: Well, yeah, that's your opinion.
MARTIN: You think we actually do?
Prof. MCDONALD: Yeah. I think we - I think…
Ms. STALLWORTH: But the reality is, will that happen? Probably not, because we are not a monolith and we will have sisters who are not as articulate, who are not as educated, who are not as sophisticated who will continue to appear on these shows. And we can be academic snobs and sit back and say look at their behavior and how could they behave that way? Well, clearly, they don't know better. They didn't attend a Howard. They didn't attend a Central State, and who are we to browbeat them about their behaviors if that's their true, authentic experiences?
Prof. MCDONALD: Well, again, I agree that this is not about trying to point out who's out of step here among black women. This is about a providing an opportunity for African-American women to reacquaint themselves with who we are, who we've been historically, and whether that has any place value in contemporary times.
MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there.
Katrina Bell McDonald is a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. She's the author of "Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity, and Contemporary Women."
Omarosa Manigault Stallworth is a reality television star and an author. She joined us from Los Angeles.
I thank you both.
Prof. MCDONALD: You're very welcome.
Ms. STALLWORTH: Thank you all.
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