SHIFTING: The Double Lives of Black Women in America

By Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden. HarperCollins. 340 pp. $25.95

We frequently hear that black women shoulder a "double burden" of discrimination -- that they suffer from prejudice based on both their gender and their race. But what exactly does this bit of conventional wisdom reveal about the everyday struggles of African-American women? The authors of Shifting attempt to bring some concreteness to a broader discussion of what they call "The Double Lives of Black Women in America."

The title of the book refers to the difficulties that beset black women who must "shift" between the expectations of middle-class white society and the cultural values and practices of African-American neighborhoods and extended families. Using data gleaned from written questionnaires and oral interviews, Charisse Jones, a journalist, and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, a psychologist, describe the delicate balancing act of women who inhabit two separate worlds, day in and day out. For example, the challenges of dealing with white co-workers and succeeding in the workplace demand of black women a specific set of behaviors -- "mainstream" (or "white") dress and hair styles and speech patterns -- putting them at odds with family members and the larger African-American community. The modern workplace values individualism and ambition; in contrast, at home and in the church, black women are exhorted to embrace a form of self-sacrifice that exacts tremendous emotional, financial and physical costs. Many of the women who must go back and forth between these two worlds every day suffer from stress-related illness such as depression; moreover, these women can never feel that they are living whole or authentic lives in either world.

Jones and Shorter-Gooden contend that all African-American women are victimized by a number of pernicious stereotypes -- that they are inferior to whites; "strong, tough" in the face of adversity; and "unfeminine," inclined toward criminal behavior and sexually promiscuous. Considering the authors' attack on stereotypes in general, it is a bit jarring to read at the very beginning of their book that "black women in America have learned to find humor in heartache, to see beauty in the midst of desperation and horror" and that they show "incredible strength and resilience, unflinching loyalty, boundless love and affection." Throughout Shifting, white men and women (as co-workers, bosses, professors and law enforcement agents) and black men (as lovers, friends, family members and preachers) are almost invariably described as insensitive, arrogant and mean-spirited.

Despite these and many other unsupported generalizations, the book contains real insights. For example, the chapter titled "Seeking a Voice: The Language and Messages of Black Women" is especially good, as the authors describe a process of "code switching" employed by black women who "shift back and forth between dialects, languages and style of communication." Jones and Shorter-Gooden make a convincing case for the idea that many white employers react (or rather overreact) negatively to the sound of black English. No matter how impressive a job candidate's resume, if she speaks in ways that are associated with African-American speech patterns, white people will dismiss her as a "ghetto girl" unworthy of a good job or a promotion.

But such useful insights raise an important question for readers: How can they separate the nuggets of valuable information in this book from its overall tone, which is at once celebratory and defensive of an undifferentiated category of people called black women? One way is to see the interview subjects as part of a specific, historic generation of black women -- those who have received at least some higher education and labor in predominantly white offices and other workplaces. Shifting deals not with a cross-section of African-American women, but with a particular subset; from the quoted interview material it is clear that most of the information for this book came from college students or from women in professional or managerial positions. Forty years ago, few black women faced the promise or perils that come with "shifting"; most of them worked in places where their coworkers were black and where opportunities for job advancement were non-existent. Today's "shifters" constitute a pioneer generation; they share their workspaces with white people, but in the evening and on the weekends they live within a community apart -- within working-class or poor neighborhoods where job success is derided as a "white thing," within extended families where higher education is still the exception and not the rule.

There's another cautionary note to be wrested from the pages of Shifting: In stressing the salience of cultural issues such as divergent speech patterns and standards of beauty, Jones and Shorter-Gooden suggest that what separates the emerging black middle class from mainstream white America is not a matter of fixed boundaries of identity. And this, in turn, serves as a powerful reminder that gender and race are not distinct, all-encompassing social categories, as many activists and scholars alike are apt to suggest. In their struggles at home, in the workplace and at church, African-American women give concrete, everyday expression to the power of class and cultural relations in the United States today. *

Jacqueline Jones teaches American history at Brandeis University.