'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

African-American women are a major force in the Obama administration. They have big jobs (U.N. ambassador, FDA head, EPA chief and more). But will their success help other, less visible black women break down doors? Teresa Wiltz reports.

As with so many other groups who’ve struggled for equality, the younger black women reaping the rewards of an older generation’s efforts often have a sunnier outlook on just how much race matters. And social class can reinforce that buppie bubble: If you’re not the first in your family to get through the door, most likely you’ll have a comfort level around white folks that makes it easier to play the corporate game. That’s true for the age group that I call the Hybrids, those of us who were born from 1959 to 1969 and grew up in the post–Civil Rights, pre-hip-hop period. Not coincidentally, many of the Obama women are Hybrids. Riding the cusp between boomers and Gen Xers, post-segregation and allegedly post-racial, we’re comfortable straddling the line between Harvard and the hood. Growing up as we did next to kids of other colors makes for a worldview radically different from that of our parents, many of whom grew up in Jim Crow America.

“I can run up one side of the culture and down the other, and I can do it with ease and authenticity because I’m not fighting the same battles that my mama did,” says Washington Post journalist Lonnae O’Neal Parker, 42, author of I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work. “I’m taking it for granted that you’re taking my humanity for granted on a basic level.” Her experience is very different from that of Dartmouth’s Ella Bell, 60, who says, “We were the ones who walked in the door, and there wasn’t a welcome mat for us. We had to learn how to survive, how to play the game. We got hurt; we got wounded; we got insulted.”

Not feeling that you have to go in fighting the power is a luxury afforded us Hybrids. And it makes for a very different work experience from that of, say, broadcast pioneer Cathy Hughes, chair and founder of the Radio One and TV One networks, who was born in 1947 and came of age in the Black Is Beautiful era of the 1960s and 1970s. For her generation of black boomers, Hughes says, the mere sight of a black man on a date with a white woman was enough to ignite all sorts of hurt and resentment. “We would confront a white woman in the bathroom, or say something under our breath about the brother,” she recalls. “That certainly translates over into the workplace. There’s that bitterness. My generation was constantly in a defensive posture: ‘Did I not get this promotion because I’m black?’ ”

I can’t help but feel that, conversely, my Hybrid peers and I are sometimes too slow to recognize discrimination, whether it’s based on race, gender or both. “You all might be slow on the uptake, but we were overly paranoid,” Hughes says. “Maybe the next generation will find a happy medium.”

Ah, Generation Next. Thanks to the rap industry, African-Americans like Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Damon Dash got seriously rich building businesses that were, to steal a phrase from a hip-hop clothing line, “for us, by us.” And female entertainers such as Beyoncé and the rapper Eve, as well as Simmons’s ex-wife, the model Kimora Lee Simmons, have done the same. The result: a new generation of entrepreneurs. According to Hughes, whose organization conducted a study of black consumers, the hip-hop generation (that is, twenty- and thirty-somethings) doesn’t care so much about making it in corporate America: “They’re saying, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to college so I can work for myself.’ ”

“Maybe we need to redefine what we mean by success,” says Fox’s Andrea Berry. “Who’s defining it as, ‘Woe is me, we don’t have any numbers in corporate America’? Who gives a shit? If they’re not going to give it to us, then we need to create our own.”

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