Jennifer Smith, a senior at the University of Maryland, has been accepted into six prestigious medical schools. She is an honors student, a sorority president, an ambassador for the university. Yet she sometimes feels unwitting pressure to prove she belongs.
“You still have to make sure you lay all of your credentials out there — your transcript, your portfolio, your résumé. They show why I am here,” says Smith, who entered Maryland on a full academic scholarship dedicated to minority students. “I always want it to be clear that I got here because of what I did.”
As Smith looks to become a doctor, she says, her mind sometimes turns to the insidiousness of racism. “These days, it’s so infiltrated into the system,” she says. “It’s hidden now.”
Black women who don’t have a long list of credentials behind their names, those who aren’t regarded as “superstars,” sometimes feel their climb is too steep. In fact, a quarter of black women surveyed in the Post-Kaiser poll said they often perceive that others think they are not smart. This perception is shared by both educated and less-educated black women.
“Despite miraculous income and educational gains for generations, the social and economic advancement of black women has always been precarious,” says Paula J. Giddings, who teaches at Smith College and has written about the political and social history of black women. “All of our wealth and all of the generational aspiration can disappear — just evaporate — if you lose your house, your health, if you have to take care of a needy family member or if you can’t get that loan to continue college.”
Staring down obstacles has become routine — what some black women described as a “make-it-happen” attitude.
Comedian and actress Loni Love grew up in Detroit’s red-brick Brewster housing projects with a single mother who had that disposition. She worried about everything from the threat of violence to whether there would be enough food on the table.
“Mom was a nurse’s aide,” says Love, who headlines comedy shows around the country. “She worked in various hospitals. She took care of us that way, and we ate government cheese. I survived. Black women know that we’ve got to take care of it — so we take care of it. It’s just embedded in us.”
Nearly six in 10 black women say they worry about providing a good education for their kids. Part of that worry stems from the legacy of segregation and discrimination in the country that prevented many black families from accumulating wealth to pass down to succeeding generations. But there is also this, according to interviews with black women: Many were not raised to expect that they could marry a fairy-tale Prince Charming who would take care of them, provide for the family, leave them with no worries.