A multigenerational crowd of 500 packed a Howard University auditorium Wednesday night as a panel blended humor, insight and statistics to illuminate the state of black women in the country today.

The event, part of The Washington Post’s “Behind the Headlines” discussion series, stemmed from a national survey conducted by the newspaper and the Kaiser Family Foundation that presented a complex portrait of the identity of black women.

View Photo Gallery: Results of a survey paint a complex portrait of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage.

The panelists, including Post reporter Krissah Thompson and Cara V. James, Kaiser’s director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Disparities Policy Project, drew as much from personal experiences as they did the complex data while discussing issues ranging from marriage aspirations to the image of the “angry black woman.”

Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, a Howard professor at the school of social work, noted that black women have their own brand of “dual consciousness,’’ the idea that they must present themselves as more subdued in professional settings to avoid stereotype.
The professor likes to think of her two personalities as “Dr. Bent-Goodley” and the more plain-spoken “Tricia.”

“That’s a part of the challenge of being a black women every day,’’ Bent-Goodley said. “And sometimes, every so often Tricia has to come out!”

The conversation then shifted to relationships, as the survey found around 40 percent of black women considered marriage to be of central importance, compared with 55 percent for white women. Those numbers were juxtaposed with more than 20 percent of black women believing wealth is important, compared with one in 20 white women.

“Is there a shortage of eligible, desirable men?” asked Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary, who led the discussion.

Bent-Goodley added that the importance of the traditional family structure has been diminished.

“Part of the challenge is we don’t say good things about marriage,” Bent-Goodley said, later adding: “One of the things we’ve lost is the value of the father.”

When Singletary asked whether such talk came from the “doctor” or “just Tricia,” the professor said “Girl, that’s both!”

Rahiel Tesfamariam, editorial director of online magazine Urban Cusp, added that black women have lately been maligned in the media as being “individualistic,” “egotistic” and driven only by their careers.

Tesfamariam urged the crowd to replace the word “career” with “purpose,” in an effort to understand the importance that many educated women have placed on making a mark on the planet and finding people with whom they can share that goal.

The survey found that, in spite of worries about health, paying bills and giving their children a good education, nearly 75 percent of African American women say now is a good time to be a black woman in America.

Reporter Thompson and James of the Kaiser foundation both noted that many women mentioned that the popularity of Michelle Obama has helped boost the image of black women -- not just for other races and genders, but also for themselves. The mere mention of her name drew applause from the crowd.

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