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Columbia Missourian

MU guest lecture focuses on identity of black female adolescents

By Michael Schrantz
April 17, 2009 | 7:17 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Adolescence can be hell. It is the time when children become young adults, and with that transition comes a level of self-realization.

Sheila Walker of Scripps College has spent the past two years putting names and faces with these emotions.

"One of the hallmarks of adolescence is the emerging sense of self," said Walker, a guest lecturer in MU's Sociology Colloquium Series.

Walker conducted two years of ethnographic research in Los Angeles County exploring how young African-American girls form their identity. With a book soon to be published, Walker on Friday delivered a lecture titled "Hoochie Mamas and Chicken Heads: Race, Gender, Class and Identity Among African-American Adolescent Girls."

The title alone was enough to bring some students to the lecture. MU freshman Chelsea Drake said she received an e-mail from her human development and family studies adviser and was curious enough to spend a warm Friday afternoon inside MU's Middlebush Hall.

Walker studied African-American girls from affluent, middle- and lower-class socioeconomic backgrounds to see how their sense of identity changed over time in response to different experiences and situations.

In her study, Walker focused on positive behavior instead of problem behavior in minority youth. She also studied how racial identity intersects with gender and class identity.

She found that girls from affluent backgrounds did not see gender as significant to their identity. Girls in the lower class thought gender was significant, she said.

The upper-class girls did not see being female as an obstacle to their dream of college and a profession. Some affluent girls had live-in maids or did fewer domestic chores than lower-class girls who took care of multiple siblings while a parent worked. Lower-class girls were also more likely to have experienced incidents of abuse from male classmates or past boyfriends, Walker said.

Walker said the "parental socialization of race" had a lot to do with whether a girl had a positive racial identity.

Those who were from affluent backgrounds were more conflicted about race than those in the lower-class group, Walker said.

Girls from a lower class were from predominately black communities and readily identified themselves as black women. Being black was "taken for granted," Walker said.

The upper-class girls grew up in private, mostly white schools without an attachment to a black community and little knowledge of black history. Walker said this led to them finding race problematic. They lived in a "white world," she said, where they began to realize that regardless of class, they were still black and struggled with what that meant for them. 

Drake, of Houston, Texas, expressed less surprise with what she heard than a reaffirmation of what she knew.

"This is my experience," she said. "The black girls that go to the white schools are different from the black girls who go to the black schools."

Walker said she titled the lecture what she did because of one affluent girl's assertion that she was tired of everyone thinking black girls were hoochie mamas and chicken heads, two prominent stereotypes of black women.

"She wanted people to know that black girls can be smart," Walker said.