Indy’s Interview with Dr. Judith Owens

May 1, 2017

Judith Owens is an African American woman, or as she prefers, a black woman. It is interesting to learn why Owens chooses the term black in retrospect to the widely used term African American. Owens’ focus is mainly the black versus the white race dominance, and its historical development giving a glimpse on the creation of this dominance during the slavery period. The engineering of dominance precepts were well orchestrated to make black individuals view themselves as unequal and lesser than their white counterparts.

More so, Owens sheds another light about this dominance; that it’s not just about the whites, but specifically the white male. All dominance is to his advantage, with slaves not even daring to look him straight in his eyes. Such gaze could have been considered rebellious or disrespectful. Owens explains her amusement with the evolution of domination, especially on the name change of black people. In Owens’ perspective, the only change she has seen in the lives of black people living in the United States is the change of name. “They changed the name. From colored to negro to African-American. I make a point of using the term ‘black’ because race is really not a thing, it’s purely a social construct. So for me the only distinguishing difference is color” (Owens). Initially, black people were called people of color, which changed to Negros, and then transitioned to the current widely accepted term African American. Owens deems that really there is no difference between whites and blacks apart from the color of their skin, and these names given to distinguish the black person are prejudicial in all manner and create the various levels of incrimination.

I chose Owens for my interview for several reasons. First, as an intersectional feminist she is well-experienced in my field of study. Owens is also distinguished as a black intellectual. Owens’ story and interview focuses on her academic work challenging the dominance debate, and is resourceful to understand and further explore my topic. Also, she was my mother’s friend and workmate years ago and therefore forthcoming with availing the necessary information. Owens’ doctorate dissertation is also a major contributor to this choice, as she reflects on intersectional tendencies and the alternative narrative (or oppositional gaze) arguing that “much of what happens to black children has nothing to do with their income, or their educational level of their family, it has to do with their experience in school and the people who they interact with” (Owens). Her dissertation titled ‘What Would Black Students Say?’ can be found here:

Oppositional Gaze

bell hooks gives an interesting anecdote about the experience of domination when one is a child to their adult superiors. The scenario is that a child is not permitted to look at the adult straight in their eyes. The consideration of such an act is rebellion and defiance. The contradictory and also humorous part is when the adults tell the child that they need to look them in the eye when an adult is talking to them. The effect is a scared but well-engineered look. Analyzing this anecdote, one can infer several things (hooks). First is the intersectionality that Owens also discusses. A person can be disadvantaged on several grounds of intersectionality such as age as is in this example. This means that a child is discriminated against by his or her adult counterparts. There is a possibility that a child is also a girl, and girls are often looked down upon due to the present hegemonic patriarchal society. Discrimination becomes worse when the girl is black and now the disadvantage accrues due to the color of her skin. The intersectionality of all these elements causes a sort of hybrid incrimination.

However, the oppositional gaze example bell hooks gives in her writing Black Looks engages in an interesting discovery that the gaze, though discouraged, is the most powerful tool. hooks argues it is not solely about the gaze itself, but more about how the gaze operates. hooks depicts black slaves who were ordered not to look at their masters, but instead they still ‘gazed’. As hooks explains, “all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze” (hooks 116). This look is the look that calls for attention. The oppositional gaze is a reactionary mechanism to the incrimination that one is not supposed to look at white superiors. It is the look that loudly speaks the fact that “we can see it all” (hooks). “Critical, interrogating black looks were mainly concerned with issues of race and racism, the way racial domination of blacks by whites overdetermined representation” (hooks 117-118). Such deliberate, rebellious and calculated looks are an attempt to change the reality for black people.

The historical development of black people is not the most rewarding. First, blacks had been slaves to white men who indoctrinated them with the view that they were lesser beings than whites. Overtime hegemonic society has perpetuated a mentality of the inferiority of black people as a way to maintain
systems of domination. Owens also told me about a scenario where she had to confront her daughter’s preschool teacher, because after school one day her daughter told her that she thought her teacher didn’t like her. Owens’ daughter, Hannah, was the only black student in the class, and when she asked Hannah why she thought the teacher didn’t like her she replied, “Because she never lets me sit next to her when she’s reading the story” (Owens). At the young age of three years old, Owens’ child had made this observation and noticed racism by her own teacher.

Throughout her life, Owens observed “the proliferation of institutional racism,” and she defines “racism as: ‘identifying a group as being inferior and then enacting policies and practices that prove that to be true’. So, the criminalization of drugs, the proliferation of prisons, biases in schools: all of these things have the power to reinforce that narrative that black people are inferior” (Owens).

Raised by her mother and grandmother, Owens grew up in different segregated places at different ages. In all these places, she had experiences which, when she reflects, brought about her intersectionality. Most strikingly, Owens was a black female raised by black women in a society that was ruled by white men. From schools to social places, the white person was placed superior to persons of color. It was difficult for Owens to be black in the educational and professional world. She had to fight to get her voice heard and she experienced uncomfortable moments that encouraged her to excel more.

Unlike hooks, Owens does not believe that the achievement gap is real, especially intellectually. hooks writes that it is wrong to think that all students coming to school have a similar intellectual capability. Instead, Hooks comes up with the “alternative narrative’’ which depicts that it’s a matter really of the experiences that the different people go through. Owens employed hooks’ oppositional gaze in her dissertation titled What Would Black Students Say?

The gaze is the hegemonic gaze of the straight white male who generally objectifies things under his gaze, and the oppositional gaze is for people who are not represented, not behind the representative lens (to decide), or not represented positively. As hooks explains, “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality” (116). “Black females have ‘our own reality, our own history, our own gaze– one which sees the world rather differently than anyone else’… Black women, as victims of race and gender oppression, have an inherently different field of vision” (hooks 128).

Owens employed the oppositional gaze or as she prefers, the alternative narrative, in her dissertation suggesting that there were not good black students and bad black students, that many of the black students were having the same experience, and what distinguishes those that are successful or not is their support systems and their ability to persist in the face of opposition and challenge. Similar to hooks, Owens “interrogated the work, [and] cultivated a way to look past race and gender for aspects of content, form, language” in the school system to uncover black students’ reality (hooks 122). Black students have been labelled as inferior to white students due to racist teachers and administrators in hegemonic society; “power is a system of domination which controls everything and which leaves no room for freedom” (Foucault, hooks 116). Therefore, Owens argued that excellence in academics was not a matter of who had more money or whose parent was home, or whether they came from a single-parent home; it was a matter of their ability and resilience to overcome what is pretty common institutional practice of bias against black students in integrated schools (Owens).

Sister Friendly

Owens’ grandmother was nicknamed Sister Friendly because she was the “social activist of the city” (Owens). Sister Friendly employs her statement that every person is worthy of attention and care by letting strangers into her home “whether ‘of color’ or ‘white’; whether male, female, or trans; whether lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, or gay” (Keating 35). “She regularly had people living in her garage or places. She believed everybody had a unique quality, regardless, and she never let us forget that” (Owens).

Sister Friendly broke down walls between herself and others. She employs Keating’s Bridge Lesson 3: Listening with Raw Openness. Like Keating describes, “she opens herself to the lives of these others, allows herself imaginatively to feel their conflicts and pain, and uses this empathy and openness as pathways to investigate possible points of connection” (Keating 39). To Owens’ grandmother, every person deserves to be heard, given attention, given care, and given a chance. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy “creates a restrictive framework that labels, divides, and segregates based on socially defined difference and sameness” (Keating 36). Sister Friendly opposed this thinking, along with judging “one another based on appearance or identity labels,” and condemning “one another without adequately listening or (apparently) trying to understand others’ perspectives” (Keating 35).

The Working Class Woman

In the interview, Owens reiterated that the most difficult thing in her life was solely bringing up her children, and she also recounted this as the greatest achievement in her life. Owens’ husband left her out of the blue, “like a light switch,” and she was forced to transition from a housewife and full-time graduate student to the “breadwinner” and the sole provider for her two children (Owens). This affirms the strength that Owen exudes by taking care of her family after such a tragic event. She pursued her children’s education, which can be seen as the way through which black people can empower themselves against prejudices. This scenario showcases what Frederickson depicts in her writing Under the Bus, which discusses how working women struggle to raise their children. However, Owens says emphatically that she does not recall a time when she was unfairly treated at work because of her color, a scenario which this book tries to bring out, but she does in fact recognize the wage gap.

Owens’ father died in the military when she was very young. As a result, she “came to recognize the challenges [her mother] had, re-doing her life after something very tragic” (Owens). Owens’ mother’s situation relates to a statistic in Under The Bus, “64.2 percent of women whose children are under six are in the workforce, with unmarried mothers having a higher participation rate than married women overall” (Frederickson 169). “She was a black, single mother so it was very difficult to find employment that she was actually qualified for because of the social times” (Owens). Being black in the professional world was very difficult for Owens’ mother due to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. First, the lack of job opportunities for women, let alone black women, made supporting herself and her family difficult. Second, the wage gap between men and women is real and in effect, as Frederickson argues, “lack of paid family leave and child care, unequal pay, and fewer job opportunities make [women] staying in the workforce impossible” (189). “The unfortunate truth about motherhood in America is that it is one of the causes of lingering inequality between men’s and women’s wages” (Frederickson 189). Owens even stated herself that a difficulty she faces in the workplace as a black female is that she is “underpaid compared to male [salaries]” (Owens).

Analysis and Personal Thought

Several things can be inferred from the various analyses on Black Looks, Beyond Intersectionality and Under the Bus. First, an ‘achievement gap’ should not be used to distinguish students because there is no such thing. Ample attention needs to be given to all students, regardless of social status, race, gender or background. The color of a person’s skin cannot be used to distinguish them as disadvantaged. All people deserve equal chances and opportunities.

Second, it is important to recognize that the Internet is a powerful tool. “Black female critical thinkers fully acknowledge the importance of mass media, film in particular, as a powerful site for critical invention” (hooks 128). In fact, Owens agrees with hooks and argues that “the Internet will go down as the single greatest civil rights invention” because it raises awareness about protest marches and gives media exposure to civil rights issues. The Internet is “the single worst instrument invented for preserving white male dominance” because information is power (Owens).

It is particularly interesting to note how Owens answered my interview questions. Being a black intellectual, I expected her to fight the white supremacists to the core. However, her reaction is rather on a fact finding mission where she goes to showcase a problem that needs addressing, rather than profiling it as the greatest evil. She views the education system as a contributory factor to the racism debate and goes out to give recommendations. She does not offer preferential treatment for black counterparts, but instead calls for equality in the schools and a system that addresses their needs.

Intersectional feminism has been postulated by various intellectuals and leaders in history. However, the readings above and Owens’ oral interview showcases a different thought process. From Hooks’ reactionary, commanding look that exhibits strength in the face of a problem, to Owens’ story of how she accomplished it, to Frederickson’s view of women in the workplace– the different texts present a intellectual, resilient woman who is discriminated against due to her race and gender, but still fights to overcome these prejudices.