On Balancing Career and Family as a Woman of Color

On balancing career and family as a woman of color.

Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.
National Journal
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Michel Martin
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

I thought the tele­phone in­ter­view was go­ing so well: The wo­man was ma­ture, had taken care of kids of dif­fer­ent ages, and even (bo­nus points!) had ex­per­i­ence with twins. We seemed to be on the same page about things like activ­it­ies and dis­cip­line, and she had fam­ily in the D.C. area, which was why she was look­ing to make a move from the Mid­w­est. I was re­search­ing flights and check­ing our fre­quent-fli­er ac­counts to bring her to town to meet us in per­son. Then she emailed me back with one more ques­tion:

What race are you?

Ex­cuse me?

She told me she wouldn’t be in­ter­ested in work­ing for someone who wasn’t white, and when I told her I found her at­ti­tude bizarre in this day and age, she ex­plained that she thought mine was. She had only ever worked for white people, she only wanted to work with white people, and what was wrong with that?

I’ve had reas­on to think about this in­cid­ent many times over the past two years since I read and — in my role as host of NPR’s Tell Me More — re­por­ted on Anne-Mar­ie Slaughter’s power­ful es­say for The At­lantic, “Why Wo­men Still Can’t Have It All.” In that piece, she ex­plained how, as the State De­part­ment’s first wo­man to dir­ect the Of­fice of Policy Plan­ning, she came to feel that she had been part of a con­spir­acy of false­hoods about what it really takes to be an ef­fect­ive par­ent and high-level pro­fes­sion­al at the same time. Anne-Mar­ie made very clear that, after a ca­reer in for­eign policy in which she rarely if ever had oc­ca­sion to talk about her per­son­al life, she wanted to lay out her own per­son­al struggles, hop­ing it would make a dif­fer­ence. And I think it has made a dif­fer­ence. But my ques­tion is, for whom?

The dis­cus­sion too of­ten ends where it began: with priv­ileged, mostly white wo­men at the fore­front.

While she ex­plained that she had writ­ten the piece for “her demo­graph­ic” of “highly edu­cated, well-off wo­men who are priv­ileged enough to have choices in the first place,” I strongly be­lieve that the is­sues she raised mat­ter to wo­men and fam­il­ies far bey­ond that demo­graph­ic. Un­for­tu­nately, in the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve seen about and around the piece — in on­line for­ums and at planned events, even those in which I’ve been asked to play a part — the dis­cus­sion too of­ten ends where it began: with priv­ileged, mostly white wo­men at the fore­front. And that means is­sues dis­pro­por­tion­ately faced by wo­men of col­or are pushed to the mar­gins again and again.

Let’s be clear: Wo­men of every back­ground face chal­lenges when they try to bal­ance ca­reers and fam­il­ies, not least of which is the ex­pect­a­tion that they should feel guilty for work­ing out­side the home even when they have no choice. But wo­men of col­or of­ten face ad­di­tion­al pres­sures that white wo­men are far less likely to en­counter.

Some of those pres­sures are rooted in eco­nom­ics and are more fre­quently faced by low-in­come wo­men; oth­ers are ap­plic­able across the in­come spec­trum. To­geth­er, those chal­lenges boil down to a simple real­ity: Race mat­ters, in­clud­ing in the re­spons­ib­il­it­ies of fam­ily life — par­tic­u­larly tak­ing care of the young, the old, and the sick — that still fall mainly to wo­men.

My en­counter with the ra­cist would-be babysit­ter was just one ex­ample but an in­struct­ive one — even to me. It happened in a year when my child-care ar­range­ments fell apart with little warn­ing, when the wo­man I had re­lied upon since the kids were a few weeks old chose to leave the area be­cause of her own fam­ily’s health needs. By the end of the year I had filled out six W-2’s as I cycled through one ar­range­ment after an­oth­er — very of­ten due to clashes over ra­cial at­ti­tudes I couldn’t tol­er­ate or cor­rect, such as com­ments about my daugh­ter’s “good hair.”

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Thank­fully, a New York Times re­port that same year — 2006 — let me know I was not alone: “Like hail­ing a cab in midtown Man­hat­tan, search­ing for a nanny can be an ex­as­per­at­ing, hu­mi­li­at­ing ex­er­cise for many blacks, the kind of or­deal that makes them won­der aloud what year it is,” the piece ex­plained. It’s only fair to note, as the art­icle did, that many of the nan­nies who re­fused to work for black par­ents were also black. (That wasn’t the case with the wo­man who re­fused to con­sider work­ing for me; she was white.)

Cer­tainly, be­ing con­fron­ted with a ra­cist po­ten­tial babysit­ter won’t top most people’s lists of most chal­len­ging life mo­ments. It doesn’t even top mine. But the in­cid­ent was a pain­ful re­mind­er that for wo­men of col­or — in­clud­ing wo­men who are as priv­ileged as I am, work­ing in the same kinds of high-pres­sure circles — ques­tions about work and life and ca­reer can be far more com­plic­ated than for sim­il­arly situ­ated white wo­men.

What has made a try­ing situ­ation even more pain­ful is the sense that our story is not worth telling. Too of­ten in my baby-boomer gen­er­a­tion, wo­men of col­or have had to fight our way in­to con­ver­sa­tions that should have in­cluded us to be­gin with. That needs to change. It needs to change be­cause while we have many ex­per­i­ences that are sim­il­ar to those of our white col­leagues, we are also liv­ing with real­it­ies that are very dif­fer­ent. I be­lieve that if those con­ver­sa­tions had taken place, had been truly in­clus­ive, and had con­sidered a broad­er ar­ray of life ex­per­i­ences, we would all be fur­ther along than we are now in ad­dress­ing so many of the things that, for many wo­men, make life more dif­fi­cult than it needs to be.

I AM NOT a wo­men’s-stud­ies schol­ar, but my read­ing of his­tory sug­gests there has al­ways been a di­vide between white wo­men act­iv­ists who have seen a con­nec­tion to the con­cerns and struggles of wo­men of col­or, and oth­ers who don’t think about it or couldn’t care less, such as the or­gan­izers of the his­tor­ic 1913 suf­fra­gist march on Wash­ing­ton who in­sisted that black wo­men march sep­ar­ately at the back (which Ida B. Wells, a journ­al­ist and an­ti­lynch­ing act­iv­ist, re­fused to do, by the way).

Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. (Chet Susslin) Chet Susslin

Michel Mar­tin, host of NPR’s Tell Me More. (Chet Suss­lin)This is amaz­ing to me be­cause we can­not fully un­der­stand, let alone solve, the im­port­ant is­sues around wo­men, work, and fam­ily in Amer­ica without ac­know­ledging the im­port­ant role that wo­men of col­or have played in that his­tory. From Amer­ica’s earli­est days, the story of wo­men of col­or has been the story of work­ing wo­men: en­slaved Afric­ans who picked to­bacco and cot­ton, in­den­tured Ja­pan­ese and Chinese wo­men who cut sug­ar­cane, Lat­ina farm­work­ers who have gathered the food the na­tion eats, wo­men of every race who have done do­mest­ic work.

While a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an wo­men of all races now work out­side the home, black wo­men are more likely to be in the paid labor force than wo­men from any oth­er group, and to stay in it longer (re­cent demo­graph­ic trends sug­gest that Lat­i­nas are more likely than wo­men of oth­er back­grounds to be stay-at-home moth­ers). Wo­men of col­or are a ma­jor pres­ence in the kinds of jobs that we think of as “wo­men’s work” — nurs­ing, teach­ing, house­keep­ing, and oth­er forms of care­giv­ing. And wo­men of col­or play ma­jor roles in some of the work­places that are still pre­dom­in­ately male — such as the U.S. mil­it­ary. Nearly 40 per­cent of all en­lis­ted wo­men in the Army are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and over­all a third of the wo­men in the act­ive-duty force across the ser­vices are minor­it­ies. It really shouldn’t sur­prise any­one that the first mil­it­ary wo­man to be­come White House phys­i­cian and to head the White House med­ic­al of­fice, Dr. Con­nie Mari­ano, is a Filipino-Amer­ic­an; or that the first wo­man to lead the Army’s pres­ti­gi­ous Drill Ser­geant School, Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Teresa King, is Afric­an-Amer­ic­an; or that the first fe­male four-star ad­mir­al in the Navy, Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, is Afric­an-Amer­ic­an as well.

I am part of a trans­ition­al gen­er­a­tion: We are rarely the first wo­man or even the first minor­ity wo­man to do some job or an­oth­er, but still too of­ten we are one of the very few. Like Anne-Mar­ie Slaughter, I’ve nev­er been sub­jec­ted to the crotch grabbing, the shoved-up-against-the-lock­er-and-groped kind of har­ass­ment, or the overt be­littling of my qual­i­fic­a­tions and as­pir­a­tions that so many of our pre­de­cessors had to face — even wo­men who are just a few years older than I am. I have al­ways been grate­ful for wo­men in my chosen field who fought to open doors I got to walk through and who took time to ment­or and in­spire those of us who were com­ing be­hind them. I have had wo­men of all races to look up to at every place I’ve ever worked — wo­men who fought for as­sign­ments and pay equal to their tal­ents, and man­aged either to raise chil­dren or to take care of eld­erly re­l­at­ives, or both, des­pite the dif­fi­culties in­her­ent in do­ing so in our de­mand­ing, ex­tremely un­pre­dict­able busi­ness.

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Be­cause of these trail­blazers of dif­fer­ent back­grounds I have been able to see clearly that there are many things that white wo­men and wo­men of col­or have in com­mon in their ef­forts to rise pro­fes­sion­ally — one of the most ob­vi­ous be­ing the bio­lo­gic­al clock. Pep­siCO CEO In­dra Nooyi talked at this year’s As­pen Ideas Fest­iv­al about how, for wo­men, “the bio­lo­gic­al clock and the ca­reer clock are in total con­flict with each oth­er. Total, com­plete con­flict.” This is, of course, equally true for white wo­men and wo­men of col­or. And I have had plenty of ex­per­i­ences in my own ca­reer that have re­flec­ted this prob­lem. There was, for in­stance, the time my boss sent me, while I was still breast-feed­ing, on an as­sign­ment to a city that was threatened by an ice storm. When the ice storm did hit, our small, crowded plane had to circle and I was stuck for hours with no place to use my breast pump. After we fi­nally landed and I could make my way to a re­stroom to pump, on the verge of hys­ter­ics be­cause I was in so much pain (any­one who has nursed a baby will know what I am talk­ing about; and if you haven’t, well, trust me, it hurts), I called up and said I was go­ing to quit — only to have the pro­du­cer on the phone, an­oth­er moth­er of young chil­dren, calmly listen to me rant, send me home, and de­cline to pass on the mes­sage.

THESE ARE IS­SUES that af­fect all wo­men who work out­side the house — truly, any­one in a care­giv­ing role. Still, though, I would tell you things are dif­fer­ent for wo­men of col­or. They are dif­fer­ent for reas­ons that are small and nu­anced, and for reas­ons that are big and con­sequen­tial.

Let’s start with one of the smal­ler things: the in­vis­ib­il­ity of wo­men of col­or who are am­bi­tious and who are par­ent­ing or care­giv­ing at the same time. It has changed some over the dec­ades — The Cosby Show was a pi­on­eer in this — but in my ex­per­i­ence wo­men of col­or have of­ten been shown in en­ter­tain­ment as either moth­ers and care­givers (Good Times, Mod­ern Fam­ily) or as am­bi­tious and striv­ing (Scan­dal). Rarely are they shown as both.

It isn’t just the en­ter­tain­ment in­dustry that does a poor job of de­pict­ing wo­men of col­or and their full range of ex­per­i­ences; journ­al­ists should take some re­spons­ib­il­ity for this as well. One former TV boss of mine used to talk about get­ting a “white guy in a suit.” The think­ing was, if you wanted to show that whatever you were re­port­ing on was a uni­ver­sal is­sue, you needed to go find a “white guy in a suit,” either as the sub­ject of the story or even to tell the story. I am sure he meant well, but a con­sequence of this think­ing has been to main­tain the status quo of mak­ing white men’s ex­per­i­ences the stand­ard to which all oth­ers are com­pared.

A con­sequence of this think­ing has been to main­tain the status quo of mak­ing white men’s ex­per­i­ences the stand­ard to which all oth­ers are com­pared.

A deep­er set of chal­lenges has to do with the eco­nom­ic real­it­ies of the times we find ourselves in — which bump up against the so­cial ex­pect­a­tions we have of ourselves. These prob­lems can af­fect white wo­men too, but there is no doubt that they are dis­pro­por­tion­ately ex­per­i­enced by wo­men of col­or. One of my fre­quent guests on Tell Me More over the years has been my friend Danette Tuck­er, who is known as Dani. She’s been a su­per­visor at a su­per­mar­ket, a pro­duc­tion as­sist­ant on a news pro­gram, and an ad­min­is­trat­ive as­sist­ant. She now runs her own fit­ness busi­ness. Her candor and open­ness about her life — in­clud­ing fam­ily crises that upen­ded her abil­ity to fin­ish col­lege, bouts of home­less­ness, and her tough-love ap­proach to par­ent­ing — have made her one of our most pop­u­lar guests. On one pro­gram, she told us about how she had to send her then-5-year-old daugh­ter and then-9-year-old son to school on a route that in­volved two city buses and a Metro train ride across town be­cause, after she sep­ar­ated from the chil­dren’s fath­er, she couldn’t stay in the same home, couldn’t af­ford to miss work — which was at the oth­er end of the city — and didn’t feel she could trans­fer the kids to a dif­fer­ent school since it was so close to the end of the school year. One day in­to the third week of this in­cred­ibly stress­ful ex­per­i­ence, a sym­path­et­ic school sec­ret­ary saw her chil­dren hid­ing be­hind a tree, wait­ing for the bus, and offered to es­cort them home. When Dani told this story on Tell Me More, for weeks af­ter­ward people stopped me on the street to tell me how it haunted them.

Then there is the wo­man I hired to help me at night in the first few weeks after my twins were born, when my hus­band was be­gin­ning the first of a series of lengthy tri­als out of town for the bet­ter part of a year. One day she came late from her job as a charge nurse at a nurs­ing home. She was late be­cause she had to as­sist one of the new nurses on her unit, a wo­man on her second day of work who had seemed to be hav­ing a heart at­tack, but was in fact hav­ing an anxi­ety at­tack. The reas­on for her pan­ic? On her very first day of work, the day-care cen­ter that was tak­ing care of her son had left him in his in­fant car­ri­er, while fail­ing to ad­equately feed him or change him. But fear­ing she would be fired if she took time off to find a bet­ter place, this nurse took her baby back to the same day-care cen­ter, went to work for her second day, and promptly fain­ted from the stress and fear. To those who might ask all the usu­al ques­tions — why was she work­ing, why didn’t she just stay home un­til the baby was older, and so on — her su­per­visor told me that the wo­man, a first-gen­er­a­tion Afric­an im­mig­rant, was mar­ried, with an ad­vanced de­gree, and was work­ing to al­low her hus­band to fin­ish his de­gree. She was, as the su­per­visor told me, do­ing everything “right” — but it was not enough. 

This is not just a prob­lem for minor­ity wo­men, of course: Eliza­beth War­ren’s mem­oir gives a can­did de­scrip­tion of how drain­ing the search for child care can be. War­ren de­scribes how, at the be­gin­ning of her law-school teach­ing ca­reer in Hou­s­ton, she ar­rived at a day-care cen­ter to pick up her son and found him with a soggy di­aper and a list­less ex­pres­sion. It’s as heart­break­ing to read as it must have been to ex­per­i­ence. In her case, though, a be­loved aunt and her par­ents were able to move nearby to help.

What’s dif­fer­ent for so many black and brown wo­men is that they are far less likely to have the re­sources to find solu­tions — if for no oth­er reas­on than the fact that their pay, on av­er­age, is so low. While it’s widely known that Amer­ic­an wo­men who work full time make 77 cents for every dol­lar paid to a male coun­ter­part, the gap is even more dra­mat­ic when you factor in race. Ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by the Na­tion­al Wo­men’s Law Cen­ter, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men who work full time, year round, make just 64 cents for every dol­lar paid to a white non-His­pan­ic man. You might be temp­ted to think that this is com­par­ing apples to or­anges — a home-care aide with a sur­geon — but you would be wrong. The study says Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men work­ing as phys­i­cians and sur­geons make 52 cents for every dol­lar paid to their white non-His­pan­ic male coun­ter­parts (as com­pared with 71 cents for wo­men phys­i­cians and sur­geons over­all, ac­cord­ing to a dif­fer­ent study). Mean­while, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men work­ing as per­son­al aides make 85 cents for every dol­lar paid to their white male peers (as op­posed to the 95 cents made by wo­men over­all, ac­cord­ing to an­oth­er study).

Martin prepares her son for summer camp before heading into the office. (Chet Susslin) Chet Susslin

Mar­tin pre­pares her son for sum­mer camp be­fore head­ing in­to the of­fice. (Chet Suss­lin)The con­sequences of this gap are enorm­ous and ob­vi­ous. Less in­come means less abil­ity to pay for the kinds of sup­port ne­ces­sary to work at any level, let alone an elite level. Less in­come means ac­cu­mu­lat­ing few­er as­sets, which in turn af­fects the abil­ity to help off­spring cre­ate wealth, gain edu­ca­tion, or provide sup­port in old age. This real­ity, coupled with the fact that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men are less likely to marry than white wo­men are, has par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant con­sequences, as they are also less likely to have the be­ne­fit of a spouse’s in­come, let alone the be­ne­fit of his (or now her) emo­tion­al sup­port. All of this con­trib­utes to the shock­ing stat­ist­ic that wo­men of col­or between the ages of 36 and 49 have, on av­er­age, $5 in as­sets com­pared with white wo­men’s $42,600, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the In­sight Cen­ter for Com­munity Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment.

Over and over again I have bumped up against this dif­fer­ence in “cush­ion,” and time and again I have been struck by how even well-edu­cated people are ob­li­vi­ous to its con­sequences. For ex­ample, in re­cent years, as the re­ces­sion has taken hold, people have sent me books they’ve writ­ten on how to make do with less, or how to live on a teach­er’s in­come, or how to re­cov­er from di­vorce. These books, most of­ten writ­ten by middle-class whites, have had this re­cur­rent mes­sage: Bor­row from re­l­at­ives un­til you get back on your feet. While the people of col­or I know have many, many strengths — in­clud­ing re­si­li­ency, pride, and of­ten a spir­itu­al found­a­tion to take them through hard times — what they do not have are re­l­at­ives from whom they can bor­row sig­ni­fic­ant amounts of money.

Go­ing back to the ques­tion of how to man­age work and life: There’s been a new fo­cus re­cently not just on the con­sequences of low pay but also on the is­sue of un­pre­dict­able work ar­range­ments that deny em­ploy­ees con­sist­ent sched­ules. There is also the ques­tion of paid leave versus un­paid leave, and that is an is­sue par­tic­u­larly for Lati­nos, who are far less likely to have jobs with paid leave than are either white or black work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics, only 43 per­cent of His­pan­ic work­ers, both wo­men and men, work in jobs with any paid leave, com­pared with 60 per­cent of black and white work­ers.

Some have ar­gued that part-time work is the an­swer, but the dif­fi­culty of ar­ran­ging child care around these kinds of sched­ules has been little dis­cussed un­til very re­cently, after a spate of dis­tress­ing news stor­ies about child neg­lect. Is it any won­der, giv­en all the chal­lenges wo­men of col­or face, that so many of these dis­turb­ing stor­ies in­volve minor­ity wo­men, and for the most part single moth­ers? Wo­men such as Shane­sha Taylor of Ari­zona, who was ar­res­ted for leav­ing her chil­dren in the car so she could go on a job in­ter­view; or Ad­ri­anne Tijuana John­son of Flor­ida, who had her chil­dren stay in a stor­age unit while she searched for af­ford­able hous­ing; or Debra Lynn Har­rell of South Car­o­lina, who was ar­res­ted for al­low­ing her daugh­ter to play at a nearby park while she worked her shift at Mc­Don­ald’s. In this last case, a bystand­er called po­lice, and the moth­er was charged with “abandon­ing” the child.

My anxi­ety about man­aging work and fam­ily has been con­tinu­ally ex­acer­bated by the feel­ing that I couldn’t talk about it, a feel­ing that was re­in­forced whenev­er I did try to talk about it.

And that leads to an­oth­er pro­found is­sue for wo­men of col­or: the pun­it­ive re­sponse of law en­force­ment and oth­er au­thor­it­ies when child-care ar­range­ments break down. When we talked about the story of the South Car­o­lina wo­man on my ra­dio pro­gram, none of the di­verse pan­el of guests be­lieved that a white moth­er with a sim­il­ar scen­ario would have been ar­res­ted and charged with aban­don­ment. I am sure there are people who will ar­gue that point, but the data are very clear: When it comes to con­tact with law en­force­ment, again, race mat­ters. One story we re­por­ted early in the his­tory of Tell Me More was about an in­tens­ive study of foster care in a Michigan jur­is­dic­tion whose so­cial work­ers — cour­ageously, it seems to me — al­lowed re­search­ers to doc­u­ment every place­ment and every re­mov­al. What they found was strik­ing: Black chil­dren were far more likely to be re­moved from their homes un­der the same cir­cum­stances where white fam­il­ies got re­sources to help them stay to­geth­er.

I have a the­ory that all of this is one reas­on so many black wo­men are de­fens­ive about Michelle Obama’s de­cision to pri­or­it­ize her fam­ily life, even as some white fem­in­ists cri­ti­cize her for fail­ing, in their view, to use her plat­form more ag­gress­ively. Apart from a feel­ing of simple ra­cial pride, I think it’s something else: a feel­ing of re­lief and sym­pathy that at least one of their com­munity, broadly defined, has the op­por­tun­ity to pro­tect her chil­dren, to cher­ish her fam­ily life, and to even have some per­son­al time to shop and ex­er­cise and look good.

THERE IS AN­OTH­ER as­pect of minor­ity life that white people of­ten do not seem to share or un­der­stand: the in­tense con­nec­tion to and sense of re­spons­ib­il­ity for people apart from one’s own birth fam­ily or even chil­dren. It’s been my ob­ser­va­tion that minor­it­ies are more likely than whites to be in­volved with or take fin­an­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity for people oth­er than their own chil­dren and par­ents — say, the chil­dren of sib­lings, or even close friends of their own chil­dren. Such sup­port can in­clude everything from buy­ing school sup­plies or pay­ing for tu­tor­ing to ac­tu­ally rais­ing a child for an ex­ten­ded peri­od of time. In my own circle of friends and ac­quaint­ances, there is a wo­man who has fin­an­cially sup­por­ted a neph­ew off and on for years, through bouts of his moth­er’s struggle with men­tal ill­ness; there is an­oth­er who has taken just about every one of her large circle of nieces and neph­ews on col­lege vis­its; there is an­oth­er who reg­u­larly uses her va­ca­tion to of­fer re­lief to a niece with a spe­cial-needs child.

These stor­ies are not un­usu­al; in­deed, there is such a strong cul­tur­al ex­pect­a­tion of this kind of fam­ily in­volve­ment that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Lat­ina celebrit­ies are fre­quently slammed for “abandon­ing” their fam­il­ies when they re­fuse. And this is, I be­lieve, one reas­on the well-worn grooves of the de­bate about work and fam­ily life seem so ir­rel­ev­ant to so many people of col­or. Front and cen­ter in their minds is mak­ing part­ner at the law firm, but also mak­ing sure that a fam­ily mem­ber’s car doesn’t get re­pos­sessed. Front and cen­ter in their minds isn’t just get­ting a big­ger house, but also keep­ing their par­ents’ home out of fore­clos­ure. Front and cen­ter in their minds is not just get­ting what they want, but also be­ing sure that oth­ers in their circle have what they need. What’s dif­fer­ent, in short, for so many minor­ity wo­men, is that they can­not help but see them­selves as a part of something lar­ger — per­haps be­cause they know there are obstacles in their lives and the lives of their fam­ily mem­bers that no amount of “grit” will over­come.

(Chet Susslin) Chet Susslin

(Chet Suss­lin)In my own life, my anxi­ety about man­aging work and fam­ily has been con­tinu­ally ex­acer­bated by the feel­ing that I couldn’t talk about it, a feel­ing that was re­in­forced whenev­er I did try to talk about it. (In case you are won­der­ing, my search for a babysit­ter did even­tu­ally bear fruit: I put out a dis­tress call on my neigh­bor­hood list­serv, and one of my neigh­bors re­ferred me to a wo­man who had just closed her li­censed day-care cen­ter. She’s been with us ever since.) One reas­on I am so dis­ap­poin­ted about the can­cel­la­tion of Tell Me More, which will have its last broad­cast Aug. 1, is that the show has al­lowed me to pri­or­it­ize these dis­cus­sions on my own terms. It has been a place for wo­men from all back­grounds to tell their own stor­ies, and dis­cuss what it really takes not just to sur­vive but thrive.

When it comes to the dif­fi­cult ques­tions of fam­ily and work, the si­lence and the dis­tance between wo­men of dif­fer­ent back­grounds and eth­ni­cit­ies must end. Our prob­lems are of­ten dif­fer­ent, but we need to seek solu­tions to­geth­er. This is not an ar­gu­ment for a par­tic­u­lar strategy or polit­ic­al philo­sophy, but it is to say what seems ob­vi­ous to me: that is­sues sur­round­ing child care and care­giv­ing in gen­er­al are prob­lems that af­fect mil­lions of us, from all walks of life, and they re­quire in­cent­ives and edu­ca­tion and en­force­ment — all mat­ters that pub­lic policy is sup­posed to ad­dress. What oth­er vi­tal so­cial func­tion is so ne­ces­sary, yet so ran­domly ac­quired, so lack­ing in stand­ards for the many who need it, yet so wildly ex­pens­ive?

Wo­men of col­or have a long his­tory of mak­ing a way out of no way, of rising out of cir­cum­stances many would con­sider im­possible, of find­ing hope and pur­pose in the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Surely these are strengths that should be brought to bear on these is­sues, and surely there is a way for white wo­men to join us in this struggle. There is a say­ing that is pop­u­lar on some col­lege cam­puses right now: Check your priv­ilege. As I un­der­stand it, it’s mainly aimed at ad­vant­aged white people who are be­ing ad­mon­ished to re­cog­nize their ad­vant­ages, es­pe­cially ones they take for gran­ted. I won’t pre­sume to speak for all wo­men of col­or so I will speak for my­self: I don’t care about that. I don’t want your pity, and I can’t use your guilt. I don’t want my white fe­male col­leagues to “check” their priv­ilege. I want them to use it — their net­works, their as­sets, their re­la­tion­ships — to form a united front with wo­men of col­or, and to help im­prove things for all of us.

Michel Mar­tin is the host of NPR’s Tell Me More. When her show ends in Au­gust, she will re­main with NPR. Fol­low her at @NPRMichel.


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