CHICAGO — Ask Deborah Mack, one of eight black women sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a small apartment, whether she is a feminist and she peers at you with a glare that feels hot enough to sear the paint off the walls.
"What's the big deal?" thunders Mack, a divorced anthropologist with two children who works at the Field Museum of Natural History here. "I can't figure out what all the damn uproar is over. I was raised feeling I was equal to men. There's nothing unusual or feminist about that. Not where I come from, at least."
"Amen!" shouts Denise Carrillo, 41-year-old entrepreneur who is married and the mother of four. "I was always told I had to be self-sufficient to support my children because even if I found a good man, he may die, he may be killed. So I have always been kind of freaked out by this whole concept that goes 'Oh, if you stay at home . . . you're not a feminist.' That isn't a real issue in my community."
A cacophony of affirmation fills the room. Another meeting of the Colored Women's Eating Club is in session. Tonight's topic: Do black feminists help or hurt black people, especially black men?
The question has long reverberated among women in the black community who face even more complex decisions than white women in deciding how far and how loudly to press demands for equal rights. Many have feared, or been warned, that by seeking to better their own lot they may harm black men because the white world will permit the success of either black women or black men--but not both.
Another, larger, problem is that black people are not dealing with gender issues, says Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist. "Sexism and gender issues divide the black community at least as much as economic issues and the strategy and tactics of black nationalism," Dawson says. "Black unity is not possible without the black community squarely addressing these issues and listening to voices that have too often been silenced."
Even among the most outspoken black women, the issue of gender differences among black people rarely is placed on the table for candid debate. Never does it share equal billing with the plight of black men. If and when the subject does arise, it goes only so far, remaining within the safety of groups like the Colored Women's Eating Club, an ad hoc private gathering of like-minded black women in the Chicago area.
Worse than that, say observers, the silence emboldens some black men to believe they can escape responsibility for mistreatment of black women by appealing to the need to protect black men and to preserve racial solidarity.
Some claim that was the strategy initially employed by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., fired last weekend as executive director of the NAACP. Confronted with allegations that he agreed to pay Mary E. Stansel, a former aide, $332,000 to squelch a threatened sexual discrimination suit, Chavis has argued that "forces outside the African American community" were trying to destroy his leadership.
While many men within the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People opposed Chavis' decision to use association money to settle with Stansel, none pointed to the issue of gender inequality within the organization, said Lulann McGriff, president of the NAACP's San Francisco branch and chair of the counseling department at City College of San Francisco.
"The men were more concerned with the money than how he might have been treating a woman," she says. "If you look at (Chavis') top deputies within the organization, you'll find they were all men. None of the men understand that inside the NAACP, women are the ones who build the stage and the men are the ones who dance on it."
McGriff said that by the time the board had decided to fire Chavis the concerns involving employment discrimination that triggered the scandal had been subordinated to getting the NAACP's finances in order. "The women in the (civil rights) movement are fed up and getting tired of having to sacrifice justice for us to preserve solidarity for men who don't respect us," she said, noting that some women are preparing to nominate candidates to the NAACP board to challenge the group's traditional male domination.
Julianne Malveaux, a San Francisco economist and writer, applauds any move by black women to claim a larger role in traditionally male-led organizations, be it the NAACP or the Baptist church.
"Why are women silent as men make excuses about (their) . . . poor judgment?" she asks. "Our failure to step up to the plate may have placed (the NAACP) in disarray. In some ways, our silence is as indefensible as Chavis' poor judgment."
The failure of black people to talk about gender issues, even in private, causes a significant segment of African Americans to believe "black feminists are dangerous" to the cause of black advancement, says Dawson, the political scientist.