a means of attracting a compliment or comment, and
then use that as a springboard into a conversation with a
colleague who might not otherwise pay attention to her
policy concerns. “They use that as a way to say, ‘Thanks.
Now can we talk about this issue?’” Brown says.
If these roadblocks to full participation are discouraging,
some have found other ways of working for change. Bynum
says that when voting and taking issues to local lawmakers
doesn’t work, there are other ways to accomplish political
goals. Instead of working to persuade hundreds of people in
Congress, for example, more effort can be used to persuade
one executive: the president.
Bynum, author of A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle
for Civil Rights, says that’s what civil rights leader Randolph
did, first during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt
with the March on Washington Movement. This laid the
groundwork for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs
and Freedom, when southern Democrats were poised to
shut down any and all civil rights legislation.
Bynum expects those same tactics could be employed
today, when it’s possible that President Barack Obama
could be more easily persuaded to take action on issues
than a deeply divided Congress known in recent years for
its deadlocks on major legislative priorities. “What you’re
going to see is people rallying around these issues and
calling on the president to mobilize,” Bynum says.
At an even more grassroots level, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer,
assistant professor of anthropology and African American
studies, is watching minority groups turn from mainstream
politics. Instead of looking to police to resolve conflicts in
their communities, some people are organizing to resolve
their own problems in ways that do not result in jail time.
People are considering what it means to really
participate in the system,” says Khabeer. “Organizing
outside of the system is becoming more acceptable as an
option for people today than it was ten years ago.”
Khabeer, who studies how Muslim youth in Chicago
build religious, racial, and cultural identities, says
organizations like Chicago’s Project NIA are building
momentum. (“Nia” means “with purpose” in Swahili.) The
group advocates for participatory justice (sometimes called
restorative justice), which involves victims and the wider
community in justice decisions. The process encourages
Black women in particular may face barriers when it
comes to political participation—especially holding office.
Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science
and African American studies, says black women are often
stereotyped in negative ways in the political arena. She
says to imagine someone giving a spirited speech on the
campaign trail or the floor of a legislature. If the person is
white, or even a black man, he or she may be labeled as an
independent thinker, a go-getter, or a legislator passionate
about the issue.
But the flip side of that for black women is the “angry
black woman” label. “If you’re passionate and trying to look
out for your own constituents, you’re going to rub someone
wrong,” says Brown, author of the book Sisters in the
Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making.
“When women participate—and minority women are in
the political minority—the media and other politicians
seem to stereotype them into particular roles, and these
stereotypes are not positive.”
This puts black women at a serious disadvantage on
both the campaign trail and in office. Brown says that
a black woman who is successful in office has to work
extra hard at building relationships and cannot misstep,
especially in political processes. “There’s an old adage that
black parents have to tell their children to be twice as good.
That’s the same in politics for black women,” Brown says.
One overly impassioned speech or misstep in filing a
bill, and a black woman could be looking at an uphill battle
to regain respect or attention from colleagues. “You’re
immediately discredited and everything you’re lobbying for
is immediately discredited,” Brown says.
In general, female politicians are also more likely to
be critiqued for their appearance than men are. For black
women, the issue is magnified. “Something as trivial as
hair can keep someone from being elected or having their
policies considered,” Brown says.
Brown’s research has shown that black women who
straighten their hair are more likely to be accepted by voters
and political colleagues. Those who adopt more traditional
black hairstyles may be viewed as less likely to represent
their entire community or district.
At the same time, some black women have found ways
to use their hair to gain access to colleagues who otherwise
might not notice them. Brown says an established female
politician who has credibility may change hairstyles as
“Whippa Wiley of the
art collective Fear &
Fancy” by Michael July
(page 12). July’s
collected in his book
AFROS: A Celebration
of Natural Hair, and
were featured in an
exhibition at Purdue’s
Black Cultural Center
in 2014 in collaboration
with the Art Museum
of Greater Lafayette
and the Fort Wayne
Museum of Art. The
book and exhibition
explore the beauty and
of natural hair in the