Toni Cummings is an African American woman, a healthcare worker, a mother, and a grandmother. She grew up in Panama City, Florida, graduated from Rutherford High School in 1982, and got her A.A. degree in pre-optometry from Gulf Coast University in 1984. She currently works at The Eye Center of North Florida as the Clinical Manager, the same job her mother had before her, and has been working there for twenty-four years. Growing up with her mother, who was the first African American woman to work for an ophthalmologist in Panama City, inspired her to pursue a career in optometry, and pushed her to work through all of the societal barriers in place throughout her education and career.
“I have dedicated my career to my mom.”
Sexism and Racism in Education and the Workplace
Toni knew early in her life she wanted to go into optometry. She knew a lot about the field because she watched her mother working at the office.
“Used to go in on Saturdays with my mom to, uhm, see patients on, you know, with her and the doctor, and the, the part that’s so hilarious is she thought I was going to work with her so I could eat cheeseburgers across the street at Hardee’s. Which, that was very important, we’re not going to forget that. But uhm, the fact that I watched my mom be the only African American work for an eye doctor, or an eye surgeon, that made me think about what I wanted to be when I, when I grew up.”
Going into university, Toni immediately worked on her degree in pre-optometry. She did not spend a lot of time feeling out her options and changing her majors. She knew what she wanted at the get go and did not waste any time to get it.
During her time in university, Toni experienced a lot of backlash for her aspirations because of the color of her skin. It was not common to see African American women in these STEM careers because those jobs were considered “a white man’s job.” Toni gave some examples of the stereotypes that were associated with the field and the things she heard in college:
“A black woman shouldn’t be doing what I am doing, a black woman should not wanna be an ophthalmologist, you know, or a black woman should not be, uh, in that field, you know. This is a… white person’s field, you know. You don’t see any ophthalmologists, you know, you don’t see, you know, they’re all white, you know. And “this isn’t for you, maybe you can help, be a helper, but not that,” and that drove me too.”
“And, and, and, it was like, “oh, she won’t make it”. So, that pushed me also.”
Caroline Kitchener wrote an article discussing the racism within feminist organizations called ‘How Many Women of Color Have to Cry?’: Top Feminist Organizations are Plagued by Racism, 20 Former Staff Members Say. There is a reoccurring argument being made that women have equal opportunity now and racism was abolished with the Civil Rights Act. Yet, you take a look at these organizations, like NOW pointed out by Kitchener, where the numbers of women in high positions show that most of those positions are held by white women. If all women have the same opportunity and all races have the same opportunity, why does an organization like NOW, that argues it is a progressive organization, have mostly white individuals in power? All women should include women of every race and every ethnicity, not just white women. This still remains a problem with many other career fields to this day. Toni describes a situation like this when talking about the differences in her experiences in Washington D.C. and Panama City.
Toni worked in Washington D.C. for a retina group for fifteen years. Growing up in the south and going to the nation’s capital had many changes. One of the most significant differences she brought up was about the people working around her.
“There, there were as many African Americans as Whites doing what I was doing.”
Washington D.C. is extremely diversified, and she found a lot of inspiration from the people of color that she worked with. From her time there, one thing she took away from the whole experience was working with people of color that were successful: seeing embodied examples of people of color achieving the same things as the white man. The community within Panama City, Florida is that same diverse environment. You do not see as many people of color doing the work she is doing.
She returned to Panama City from Washington D.C. after struggling with a lack of hope and inspiration from her job with the retina group. Toni’s persona and the tone in her voice gives off a strong, “get things done” energy. She is the kind of person who wants to help people and be heavily involved in the growth of her patients. She enjoys helping patients see results and get better. Working with the retina group did not meet those standards.
“They’ve done everything they can do. They’ve done cataract surgery, they’ve done this, they’ve done the YAGs, they’ve done, and now it’s just the retina. And, without the retina functioning, you’re just pretty, you’re pretty much screwed, you know. Uhm. That became depressing to me, uhm, because I wanted patients to come in and, kind of, be able to say, “Oh God, I see so much better.””
“Well, when my patients go to me, they were already doomed, they were already counting fingers, hand motion light perception, you know, things like that. So, the point of the return to try and achieve better vision wasn’t there. That became very depressing and then I knew, after spending all those years with retina, that I wanted to be with the surgeons, or I wanted to be with the Lasik surgeon, or I wanted to be with something that patients would walk out the door and say, “Ahh, my visions better.””
At The Eye Center of North Florida, Toni works as the Clinical Manager and is able to find a solution for the patients who come into the office. She now holds the same position that her mother had and has been there for twenty-four years.
Toni loves her job and is glad to be where she is today, but she has had many racist and sexist encounters in the workplace from both her co-workers and her patients. She explained a conflict that occurred between her and one of her technicians. She said he is a male chauvinist, he acted out against her, and did not respect her as his boss. The conflict occurred when Toni refused to let that faze her. She refused to bring herself to his level and confronted him in a mature manner.
“So, I go in there, and I’m trying to remain in character. I’m trying to, the biggest thing that you try to do with, with instances like that is, is just not allow them to take you somewhere where you don’t need to be. Because to me that’s a win. They have won. They have that power over you.”
“But when you are in a situation like that, you have, you have to stay on course. You have to remember they’re watching you; you know. All eyes are on you. So, are you going to show your ass, you know, are you going to act the way that they expect, are you going to be up in his face, and you know? And doing all that? And I walked out of there with dignity.”
In all of the examples she told me about, she always thought through what she needed to do to approach the situation. Any time a person disrespected her, she maintained her dignity and commanded respect by the way she responded and spoke.
Another example of disrespect directed towards her in the workplace because of her race or gender were the expressions on patients’ faces when she spoke to them. She said that as soon as the person walks in the door, she can tell whether or not they will respect her. No words necessary.
“I can tell by, I look at the patient’s expression on their face when I call them back. Like, “I don’t want this black woman calling me back,” or, “I don’t want this black person calling me.” It might not just be because of my sex, but it’s my color, and you can feel it. And until you’re black and in my skin and walked in my shoes, you won’t understand it. But, but it’s a, it’s real. To this day.”
Racism and sexism are more than just words being said to an individual. Racism is an attitude towards an individual. It’s a perception of an entire group of individuals with no knowledge of the person’s character whatsoever. Racism is the systematic injustice to non-white individuals. Toni will see the disrespect in patients’ eyes before she even begins to speak to them. That is all it takes. What Toni had to say next resonated with me.
“You’re not born into hate. You’re not born, you are taught to hate.”
Bell Hooks stated, “The enemy within must be transformed before we can confront the enemy outside” (Hooks 12). She used this statement to explain that oppression of any form- racism, sexism, classism, etc.- is taught in our culture. Racist behavior is not something that comes with life at birth. Racist behavior roots from hundreds of years of oppression within cultures. It is taught.
Representation in Media Over Time
Growing up, Toni watched the rise of feminist movements, anti-racist movements, and progressive movements. Some of the most memorable moments of her youth were seeing African American people achieving things they never were able to before because of systemic racism. Seeing the mergence of black women in power and black females and males getting those CEO jobs and owning their own businesses. These achievements were not made by just deciding to get that job or applying for the position. African Americans were rare in those careers because they were never hired. They had to work harder than white individuals to get the same job. And it wasn’t until a shift in mindsets were African Americans able to get the representation and compensation they deserved for their work.
“Before, you just didn’t, like I said, you just didn’t see women in power. Black, African Americans in, in, in power, you know. A lot of them were doing the job, but there was a white man in the seat that was taking all the credit. Uhm. Having friends, some that have master’s and PhD’s, and you know, things like that it’s just always been a struggle with us just being recognized.”
Toni also discussed gender, stating that women in Panama City during her childhood fit the stereotype every woman was expected to follow.
“Majority of the mothers when I was growing up were homemakers and made sure that the children were taken care of. Uh, very few worked. Uhm, most of you know, most of the, the, the husbands was the breadwinner. Uh, and they did the daily care for the children; picking them up from school, and going to school, and things like that.”
Women were not expected to get a paycheck. Women were not supposed to be financially independent from their partner. It is this concept that fed the idea of women not being capable of holding positions of power or working jobs that entail high education.
When it comes to the changes we have seen in representation in the media of women and women of color, there has been progress. There are more actresses, more media representatives, more government representatives, and CEO’s that are women and women of color, but it is still disproportionate.
“And it’s just grown so tremendously from black actresses, to black congressmen, to black CEOs, to black, you know, business owners, to, to everything. I mean, is, it’s, it’s still, the white male or the white female still is more prominent, and there’s more compared to the African American, but we have made grounds.”
Stacy Smith spoke at a TED Talk in 2016 on the sexism and racism in Hollywood. After investigating the top one hundred grossing films in the United States for 2015, Smith’s research team found that females only had 31% of the roles that said at least one word. Additionally, when looking intersectionally, forty-eight out of one hundred of the movies did not have a single African American role that had at least one word spoken. What we see on our movie screens shapes our perceptions of the world. If you do not see individuals that look like you in films, you are not going to believe you can do what the people in the movie are doing. When it comes to STEM characters in media, only 37% of the roles are women, and only 17% of them are black. This undermines the capabilities of these groups and disheartens adolescents looking to pursue careers in these fields. Toni received a lot of backlash for pursuing her career in pre-optometry because you didn’t see women of color in those positions in the media. Yes, there has been growth in representation, but it remains disproportionate.
Changes still need to be made when it relates to how women and women of color are represented in the media. Women make up half of the world’s population, yet we are represented in media at a lower percentage. One thing that Toni believes needs to happen in order to reduce sexism, racism, and misrepresentation in the media is learning to respect.
“I’m a woman just like she is. I’m a man, you know, just like, just like he is. Respect. My grandfather used to tell me this growing up, “If you don’t respect the person in the position, respect the position.” We’ve accomplished nothing. And until we can sit down and just talk to each, each other like humans, nothing will change.”
To the Young Women of Tomorrow
For the young women who are looking to pursue a career in STEM related fields, this is Toni’s advice to you:
“Well, first of all, you need to go with your heart, and if that’s truly, truly what you, what you really want, want to do, uhm, you pick something, and you stick with it. Jumping around, this, let me, no, changes major, no, changes, it, it’s okay to do it a couple times, you know? But when you’re in your fifth year of college, and you, you’re just wasting money and time, you know? Where you could just be, stick with something. Pray about it. Let God lead you, and if that is the path that you are to take, you’ll, you’ll knock it out the park every time.”
The moment Toni walked into the waiting room I was sitting in I could feel her confidence. Toni carries herself with dignity in everything she does and commands respect while respecting others. Through inspiration and motivation, she was able to pursue the career she aspired to do since youth. She used the negativity around her as motivation to achieve her goals. She encountered racism and sexism throughout her education and career but never let it impact her path. I learned through my conversation with Toni that you may encounter negative people in your life, but you should never stoop to their level or let their words stifle determination towards your goals. You will always come out on top by maintaining dignity and keeping your eyes on the prize. As a woman, it was empowering to hear Toni’s words as she described her values and triumph with hardship.
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Toni and hearing her perspective on the topics discussed during our meeting. I wish Toni well in all of her future endeavors and appreciate her sparing some time to have this discussion with me. If you have time, I recommend listening to the full-length recording of the interview to hear Toni’s stories and her advice.
Thelilynews. “’How Many Women of Color Have to Cry?’: Top Feminist Organizations Are Plagued by Racism, 20 Former Staffers Say.” Https://Www.thelily.com, The Lily, 3 Aug. 2020, www.thelily.com/how-many-women-of-color-have-to-cry-top-feminist-organizations-are-plagued-by-racism-20-former-staffers-say/.
Hooks, Gloria. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
TEDtalksDirector. “The Data behind Hollywood’s Sexism | Stacy Smith.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kkRkhAXZGg.