I am conducting participant observations and interviews with African American girls between the ages of 11 and 18 at an inner-city community center that houses an after-school program for youth. What is it like for young teens to “come of age” in their community? I have been hanging out at the center for over a month now, meeting with the girls once or twice a week. Sometimes they ask me to join them in playing basketball, or I watch them practice their “stepping” routines. I tutor the younger children once a week.
The neighborhood surrounding the center had several drive-by shootings, and, last week, one of the girls mentioned that a male youth was recently shot outside the center's back door. One girl told me she rarely goes out after school except when she comes to the community center. What is it like for young girls to have their day-to-day mobility so restricted? How does violence in their community affect[Page 558]peer group interactions? How do girls cope with the high levels of violence so close to their doorsteps?
Today, Nora, my research assistant, and I are the only two white people in the entire community center, and I have been dealing with feelings of being on the margins, concerned that my whiteness and my difference in age and social class are impacting my ability to listen to the girls. How can I bridge the differences divide? Do I expect too much of myself? Of them?
I usually stay in my car before pulling out of the community center driveway. I have a tape recorder to capture my reflections. The following are reflections on a meeting Norah and I had with the girls one Friday afternoon.
Norah: I think the girls were more open this time. I don't know if it was just because we bought them pizza, but I think that it was the fact that they have seen a lot of us and we are showing interest in the boys there as well, and I felt that they were open to talking about things like discrimination and white people, and I didn't feel like there was as much tension around us being white.
Sharlene: I really felt the girls opened up to me today. I think that one of the keys, it kind of fell into our laps, was that, by not excluding the boys who happened to walk into our room today, we gave legitimacy to the girls being there with us, because the boys wanted to be there as well. I think it made it an important thing that day. In a crazy way, the boys legitimized the whole thing.
As I reflected on my conversation with Norah, I realized that I had not thought about what our presence at the center meant for the boys that were also there. Our talking exclusively to the girls served to “de-center” the boys, and they became quite curious about what we were doing there. In fact, our openness to having the boys hang out with all of us for a brief time allowed them to know us a little, and it opened up an opportunity for us to ask them if we could talk with them as well at a later point in our visit. There were things that the girls would say about the boys, especially around issues of body image and appearance, and this gave us an opportunity to see how their perceptions matched up to[Page 559]how the boys felt about what they found attractive in a female.
One of the issues I was hoping the girls would bring up was that of what it meant to be a black female within their community. Today, one of the girls actually talked about this issue. It came up when one of the girls touched on what it meant be an African American female. This moment provided me with an opportunity to ask the girls directly what being black and being female meant to them and whether they felt that one identity was first and the other second. I reflected on this interview moment.
Sharlene: I found it interesting that all the girls said they considered themselves black first and female second. In most cases, they responded that, above all, they were black. They attributed this feeling to the fact that being black fundamentally shaped their sense of self and the way in which others perceived them, much more so than their gender. Related to this is the way in which the girls equated being black with a sense of strength. Many of the girls indicated that a defining factor of African American womanhood was strength, not only for each woman's self but also for her family and the community.
I also reflected on what it meant for a white researcher to ask this question. What assumptions was I making concerning race and gender? Would I ask such a question if my respondents were white? How does my own positionality reflect my agenda?