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UGUST 2009

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WHATEVER. f CAN TAKE HERMAN.

KIERNAMAYO examines why other Black women are often our worst enemies and how we can put aside jealousies to love, support, and affirm our sisters

Ou'd never know it, looking at Nikia Macklin. For one, she's gorgeous, feminine to a fault. A curvy, hair-alwaysdone 34-year-old who's employed as an intake worker at a social service agency, she rides the commuter rail to work in an adorable yellow linen dress and open-toe heels. She's the prototype of a sharp, hardworking Blackwoman. But when Macklin crosses her legs, left over right, her tattoo shows-a teeny-weeny pair of red boxing gloves just below her ankle. It's the only clue to who she used to be, the kind of woman who wouldn't hesitate to get right up in your face and fight. Like too many of us, Macklin spent years embroiled in a neverending drama with other Black women. Whenever she walked into a room full of sisters, she could feel the negative energy. Who's she looking at? was her mantra. And she wasn't alone. Starting as far back as junior high school and lasting well into adulthood, Macklin rolled with a crew of girlfriends who would set it off anywhere, on anyone. "It would be nothing for us to be 26 years old and pop off in the club," she says. "We did so much fighting and so much beefing-'Such and such was with someone's man.' There was so much hating on other people, and people hating on us." While every encounter didn't necessarily end in a physical altercation, confronting other Blackwomen was the norm. "Theconfrontations started to spill over into other parts of my life. I could be on the job [> I

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and tell my [Black female] manager, 'Bump you' or 'Kiss my ass,' and walk out. I really didn't realize until I was about 30 that this was all me," Macklin concedes. "I was projecting all this stuff going on inside of me onto her"-she gestures toward imaginary Black women-"and her and her and her."

"WE ARE OUR SISlER'S KEEPER, AND IF WE FAIL TO BRING LIFE TO leadera on my job, minister my OUR RELAI1ON5HIPS, WE church in and AVTOMAI1CALLY an influence to my children, SOW DEATI--f." I am often compli-

MY SISTER, MYSELF

Sisterhood. It's such a loaded term for Black women, no two of us define it quite the same way. There has always been a particular rhetoric about Blackwomen as sisters, but for some of us, the reality doesn't always measure up. Our collective struggle against racial, class and gender barriers are ties that theoretically bind; the word sister itself has become synonymous with Blackwoman (as in "That sister was doing her thing!"). Yet Black women from every socioeconomic group still report that the search for true sisterhoodis at times clouded with confusion-if not straight-up pain. ESSENCE editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray acknowledged as much in her April 2009 "Between Us" letter from the editor, in which she pondered: "Blackwomen's relationships with one another have often been fraught with tension. Truth is, sometimes we are our own worst enemy .... Whatever happened to lifting each other as we climb?" The response was astonishing, E-mails poured in, sounding the alarm for a deeper discussion. "As a Black woman who is a

Sisters Gone Wild

mented on my inner and outer beauty," wrote ESSENCE reader Lynette K. McDonald of Dallas. "However, I often encounter the sideways looks and glances of other Blackwomen who seem to mean me no good. It has always been a concern of mine how we treat one another, more so in the unspoken nuances, snickers and whispers heard off in the distance. We are our sister's keeper, and if we fail to bring life to our relationships, we automatically sow death. I choose not to make that my legacy." sociologists point out that each of our lives leaves an imprint on our collective sisterhood; how we treat one another has a ripple effect that extends far beyond the women directly affected. Perhaps you don't have a tattoo of boxing gloves, but ask yourself: Have you ever looked another Black woman up and down? Checked out her clothes, her body, her face, her hair and secretly sized her up as less than you? Have you ever laughed about another Black woman behind her back? Talked about her to your girls? Spilled her secrets? Have you ever flirted with another Black woman's man? Woke up next to him in bed? Have you ever had a silent thought, even for a split second, wishing failure on Reality TV promotes tension among Black women a Blackwoman at the job? Is bitch a regular word in your vocabulary? Whenever that stinger barrels out of your mouth, who is most likely to get stung? Be honest. Is it a sister? The fact is, to varying degrees, most of us are guilty of being less than sisterly at some point in our lives. The reasons we hate on one another, as strangers and sometimes even as lifelong friends, are complicated and layered. Researchers point out that, at the deepest level, the vestiges of slavery still have us in a self-hating choke hold. Flavor of Love, season 2: New York America's Next Top Model, cycle 11: (right) gets all up in Bootz's face. Again. When the competition heats up, the Add to that the insidious nature of sexpretense of sisterhood falls away. ism inherent in a male-dominated culture, and the fact that we are prone to act like, well, women. "Women are not like men in terms of physical aggression," explains Phyllis Chesler, a professor emerita of psychology and women's studies at City University of New York and author of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (Lawrence Hill Books). Chesler researched the behavior of groups of women all around the globe and concluded in her book that like men, Flavor ofLove Girls Charm School: For the Love of Ray J: With one women are complex and diverse, capable Saaphyri's eyeing Thela (left) says it all. man's heart up for grabs, 14 girls use of both love and hate, good and evil. But cattiness to prove their love. women express these emotions differently

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~en. "We don't sar ily pull the on somebody re are envious rho we disagree en do," she says. it another way, e ways in which :;:have profoundly izing effects on . We slander and :nacize, and we =- circle of women at in the workplace or - street against the of our envy." sela D. Coleman, ent and founder of -~sterhood Agenda rhcodagenda. com), 1 nonprofit organithat focuses on the nal development of and girls of African ent, agrees that our '5 e to love ourselves is crux of our issues with other. "At the core of : able to be a sister, zng someone who can .ied upon for uncondilove and support, is able to love yourself," she -Intrinsic to sisterhood f-love, self-esteem, and tanding and accepting .~u are."

reason it's hard to ignore ply overlook the insecure combative nature in some r-to-sister relationships cause in pop culture they up everywhere. Venomous ges among Black women re than acceptable-they're odified and sold. The specta14 beautiful women piling into e for weeks, verbally ripping other apart for the affection of an-a la VHl shows like Flavor _and its successor,For the Love of has become the guiltypleasure lons of us. The Real Housewives nta, a gossip-filled hit Bravo -' series that follows the lives of f that city's wealthier women,

even decided not to invite one Black cast member back for season two because, as she told ESSENCE.com,she failed to provoke negative controversy. "1 think a lot of the discord between Black women goes back to the selffulfilling aspects of seeing images of ourselves depicted as vipers, as backstabbers, as that bitch," reflects Katrina Bell McDonald, an associate professor in the department of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and author of Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity, and Contemporary Blacl<Women (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), While this affects all of us, younger sisters have a particularly difficult task in forming and maintaining a positive sense of self. "They are consistently exposed to media images that they don't yet have the filter and critical thinking ability to put into proper context," Coleman explains. "Older sisters can look at it and say, 'It's entertainment, who would do that?' But younger sisters often look at these images as models of behavior-how to act." Studies show that the more women reach out to and spend time with each other, the healthier and happier they are, and the longer they live. "But Black women have gotten to the point where they are bearing it all on their own. They are dealing with issues of shame, seeing each other as competitors, and it's literally affecting our sense of who we are,'; warns Joy DeGruy Leary, Ph.D., author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Uptone Press). \ Despite all of ouraccornI plishments as Black women \ living in. a Michelle Obama age, we are alsb stili subtly socialized -a{~'econd-, even \ third-class citizens, and finding a way to self-love from that position can be tough. Of course, the big pink elephant in the room when it comes to understanding why sisters hate is the value we tend to place on men and their role in our lives. The struggle [CONTINUEDO PAGE 150]

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for the attention or affection of a man is, hands down, the recurring theme when talking to women about being left heartbroken by their sisters. "The problem is huge; it's bigger than anyone of us," says Chesler. "We'veinternalized sexism [the notion that men are of superior value], and it applies in every area." To underscore her point, she cites studies that show that prosecutors of rapists don't want women on their juries, because women are more likely to believe the man's story. "One way to understand it is that women don't want to feel vulnerable to being raped," she says. "It's easier for us psychologically to say, She brought it on herself, she's crazy, she's a whore, she's lying. And we don't want to betray men, whom we see as more vulnerable, even as we view them as our potential saviors and protectors. We want to forgivethem, even if they've made terrible mistakes."

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But what about our own mistakes? How do we begin to heal the sisterhood? Could a simple shift in focus be enough to put us on a different path? It's a good place to start, says McDonald. "Black women think they are more different from each other than they really are," she notes. "When it comes to issues such as what does Black womanhood mean to me, and what are some of my responsibilities, we are very much alike. We yearn for the same things." Like many maverick sisters doing research in the field of Black women's studies, McDonald focuses not on negativity, but on our light. "I'm so blessed that I've always had close Black girlfriends whom I could trust emphatically," she says. "I have a friend today whom I've known since r was 5, another since I was 11. I'm now 47, so I know what's possible. Those relationships have saved me in times of despair when there was no one else who could understand me. I always feel sorry for Black women who are missing out on that. I don't want to invalidate whatever negative experiences some women have had, but I question whether we've given ourselves enough credit for our relationships, because when they do work, they work superbly." Sonia Jackson Myles, a successful
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corporate executive, writer and inspirational speaker, also sees herself as a direct beneficiary of the love and support of Blackwomen. Asked to speak at a panel discussion sponsored by Soulsof My Sisters Books last January, she contemplated and prayed deeply about what she would say before the crowd of hundreds. "Isaid to myself,I shouldjustwrite something that pledges and promises how we are going to change how we treat each other," Mylesrecalls. The result was "The SisterAccord & WhyIt's Important Now" (see page 107 for an excerpt), one Black woman's loving manual of sisterhood that was met by thunderous applause and a room full of teary eyes. Depending on where you are in your own journey toward self-loveand sisterhood, you may still have to do the emotional work of dismantling distrustful and demeaning attitudes toward other Black women. We would all do well to acknowledge the powerful words Toni Morrison once spoke at a Barnard College commencement address: "1want not to ask you but to tell you not to participate in the oppression of your sisters .... 1am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women ....I am suggesting that we pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition. We are moving in the direction of freedom and the function of freedom is to free somebody else." Imagine what might happen if we all chose to abandon the self-fulfilling, negative model of generally hating on sisters, and instead consistently took action to spin our relationships with other Blackwomen to the positive. Like' offering random sisters a genuine smile or giving other Black women compliments instead of snide side-glances. How might a fighting woman like Nikia Macklin have been different if,from the time she was a young girl, instead of feeling piercing judgmental eyes from her sisters, she had been enveloped by unconditional support and camaraderie? And even, dare it be said, love? 0
Kierna Mayo is an ESSENCE contributing writer.

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