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Issues of Identity
In her research and in her personal life, sociologist Katrina Bell McDonald grapples with questions that have no black-and-white answers.

By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Photos by Mark Lee

It was Black History Month, and Katrina Bell McDonald walked across the auditorium of a mostly white Baltimore private school, carrying posters boldly marked in ink: NEGRO. COLORED. AFRO AMERICAN. BLACK AMERICAN. BLACK.


McDonald had one question for her audience at St. Paul's School: As she held up each label, she asked, Do the mental images of who you see change?

"Yes," the students replied. The black, female Hopkins sociology professor, and an auditorium full of teen-agers, then debated the power of labels.

McDonald, who joined Hopkins's Krieger School of Arts & Sciences in 1994, asks uncomfortable questions--the hard questions, as she would say--of her students, her administrators, her husband, her friends, her research interviewees, her community, and herself.

What is race? What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be black, or African American, if you are poor, middle class, or rich?

As one of a handful of African American professors at Hopkins, McDonald has faced tougher dilemmas than most junior faculty members. Sure, there's the question of whether to turn her dissertation into a book or how to help her teaching assistants figure out a grading curve. But African American professors are in a more vulnerable space than that, she will tell you, citing studies and reports from Psychology Today, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, and numerous other publications.

Despite advances in equality--and efforts at affirmative action--black professors today continue to experience a sense of alienation and isolation. And with African Americans making up just over 5 percent of the nation's 990,000 full- and part-time professors in recent years, there's a heavy sense of responsibility among those few to help resolve racial differences on campus. "There is a lot of tension around the issue of blackness in the academy," says McDonald, who was recently promoted to associate professor. "I'm sort of a poster child for these issues."

"Black professors at a predominantly white institution are in a very awkward position," adds Rosemary Varner-Gaskins, assistant director of Homewood's Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. "Among other things, you don't have a lot of people who look like you."

"Today, black women are so fragmented from one another," says McDonald. "The elite blacks feel they are more authentic, and the downtrodden blacks feel they are more authentic." At 5-foot-2, McDonald seems tall as she speaks in a lecture hall one Monday afternoon under portraits of gray-haired white Hopkins gentlemen of yesteryear. She is striking, with the kind of looks that drew the attention of recruiters when she interned at a California TV station in high school.

As a poster child, she is complex: A dedicated researcher, she has focused her work on the struggles of young black mothers, and on declining kinship among black women across social classes. She is also a teacher, mentor, choral singer, violinist, mother, wife and stepmother, volunteer, Sunday school teacher, and daughter of a proud single mom. She will tell you how she fell off the roof in a college production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and that when she was 5 years old a playground playmate told her she was dirty because her skin was brown. She wanted to go home and wash her face.

She constantly asks herself who she is and what she is meant to do.

A divinity school dean at Howard University may have given a hint. McDonald sang at the school's chapel many years ago with her family's choral group. Even as an 11-year-old, her deep voice placed her among the chorus's male tenors. When she came to Hopkins in 1994 she called up the dean to renew the acquaintance: "Oh yes," he remembered. "The little girl with the big voice who sings with the men."

Identity. It's what we are all about, after all.

Sociologists speak to this central question with a variety of terms: Acculturation. Psychosocial stress. Socioeconomic status. Racialized sexism. Classism. "Jesus was the quintessential sociologist," says McDonald, a student of theology in her off time. "I noticed after studying his parables and broad teachings that he had a clear sense of how social worlds operate and how groups relate to one another."

Among the many issues sociologists explore are the social laws that govern groups, and how subcultures interact. Often, the question of "who we are" breaks down to pivotal markers--class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The prevalence of labels (What do you do for a living?) is woven into our social dealings, and such labels are slippery.

When McDonald gets together with her women friends, they often ask one another just what it means to be black in America today--can a Saturday-soccer, two-SUV-garage, suburban lifestyle be culturally African American? The issue has become more complex, she says, as more black Americans move into the middle and upper classes, yet try to maintain a traditional sense of unity across economic boundaries.

Even the labels are difficult: Should one use black or African American? "People will ask me about someone: 'Do you think he wants to be called African American or black?'" she says. "I say, 'I have no idea.'" She uses both.

There's a lot more than categories at stake. The 2000 U.S. Census estimates released earlier this year showed that Hispanics were on the verge of passing black Americans as a demographic group for the first time, with a number of minorities checking off more than one racial/ethnic box. McDonald and other African Americans are concerned there's a crisis at hand for the black community--the early warning bell of a disappearing cultural solidarity and a waning political role. For now, the outright loss of Black America is more fear than reality. But cases like the plight of thousands of disenfranchised black voters in Florida's 2000 presidential election show that problems believed to have been nearly solved still remain, and that outreach to those without a voice remains critical.

Historically, black women have worked across class divides as activists for civil rights, women's suffrage, higher educational standards, and a plethora of other issues. The women's movement in the Black Baptist Church, and other Christian groups, helped make black churches powerful crusaders for political and social change. Wealthy black Americans, as well as black sororities at universities, have long maintained a tradition of volunteer service in the African American community.

McDonald the mentor: The sociology professor works hard to be accessible to her students, both inside the classroom and out. As part of that network, black women have provided support for young pregnant women, creating extended families of "other mothers"--aunts, cousins, sisters, and grandmothers. McDonald has looked closely at how middle-class women help poor women in such cases. In a 1997 article in Gender & Society she coined the term "normative empathy"; the term links this motivation to help across classes to the African American norms of solidarity and responsibility.

But that family network, or kinship, has of late become frayed, McDonald's research has shown. She hears black women, regardless of class, draw demarcation lines within their own ranks, as if trying to find their footing by delineating what they are not. In interviews, she hears the terms "lazy" or "uppity." "Women I talk to say they can't relate to whatever is the 'other,'" McDonald says. "That might be black women who dress [or talk] in a particular way. Or if they see someone walking down the street, they think, 'I don't know their experiences at all.' Today, black women are so fragmented from one another." Often the "other" is someone of another economic class, but there's also the question of who qualifies as the "in" group. "The elite blacks feel they are more authentic, and the downtrodden feel they are more authentic," she says.

McDonald's research focus is unique, say colleagues such as Andrew Cherlin, chair of Hopkins's sociology department. "Most scholars tend to make the erroneous assumption that there are few class differences among African Americans," he notes. "Over the past few decades, we have seen the emergence of a black middle class, and at the same time there is concentrated poverty among lower-income African Americans. She is looking at how those emerging class differences affect relations within the African American community." Cherlin, whose recent research focuses on welfare-to-work issues, notes that increased understanding can better inform federal policy: "She helps us attain a realistic picture of how much we can expect friends and neighbors to support women moving from welfare to work."

Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a former Hopkins colleague of McDonald's who is now a research professor at Princeton, agrees: "There is a tendency to construct racial groups as if they were monolithic. There's the image of the welfare mother, or the post-welfare mother, or the ghetto kid. But there is very little about the trajectory of the black middle class."

The rise to middle-class status and above remains more complicated for blacks than for other minorities and immigrants, McDonald is finding. In her research she has linked high infant mortality rates and poor maternal health among black women to stress caused by everyday struggles with racism, sexism, and class inequality.

Increased dislocation among black women is adding to such problems. Traditional support networks are breaking down, partly because of black flight from the inner city, the isolating nature of mainstream America, and a fatigue factor among young grandmothers who have raised several generations of children. Some African Americans are losing touch with traditional centers of community involvement such as churches. With traditional support systems weakened, young black women have to get by with less medical and child care.

"For a long time, the black activist tradition has focused on preserving the race and serving one another," McDonald notes. "There has been an emphasis on sameness, the 'We are in this together' approach." In some ways, that community-based maternal care is being replaced by institutional health outreach programs. She wonders whether such programs will successfully fill the gap.

In January, McDonald launched a survey of African American women in Baltimore to better understand these issues. To identify a broad array of women, she is tapping a classic cross-class meeting place: the hair salon.

McDonald spends some Friday or Saturday mornings working as a receptionist at two African American shops in Baltimore City. When she signs new customers in, she introduces herself with a sort of embarrassed laugh.

McDonald with graduate student Adia Harvey. "Part of my role," McDonald says, "is to make it easier for the next generation of black students. I see this as a cultural responsibility." "Check it out, I'm actually Professor McDonald at Johns Hopkins," she says, then explains that she is interviewing women and would like to contact them at another date. "I have to joke it up, or this would seem really stupid," she says. "They could see it as kind of strange, like I'm some sort of a plant." (There are some perks, which she pays for. Over the past few months her straight-and-curled-under bob has been transformed into African twists, and later a cascade of soft curls a la actress Angela Bassett.)

By late April, McDonald had arranged interviews with 25 women; she is aiming for 100. She asks them to read a series of statements and rank their answers from 1 to 5, Strongly Disagree to Agree. McDonald's goal: to create a scale to measure black racial identity. In later interviews she discusses their answers in greater depth. A sampling of the statements reads:

"Black women are not respected by the broader society."

"If black women don't achieve, they have only themselves to blame."

"A sign of progress is that black women are in the mainstream of America more than ever before."

"Personally, all that matters to me is that black women don't straddle the fence; either you're black or you're not."

Gracing the file cabinets and cork boards in Katrina McDonald's office on the Homewood campus are the evidence of her own kinship network--family snapshots.

In one photo, her mother, Gladys Bell, wears a pink sweater and a soft smile as she poses next to Katrina, who's in her early 20s. The daughter's son, Jordan, now 11, is immortalized as a diapered toddler trying to walk across the living room in women's pumps.

McDonald understands the struggles of single mothers and the support that other women can provide. Her mother, who was serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, became pregnant when she was 20. The couple did not marry, so Gladys Bell raised her daughter with the help of her own mother and sister. Katrina Margaret Bell grew up in Denison, Texas, and Sacramento, California, in modest homes that at various times included her mother, grandmother, aunt, and her three older cousins. "I grew up in a female-dominated situation, and everything I am is a product of that," McDonald says. "My mother was close to her sister, and my aunt's daughters were like sisters to me."

Gladys Bell, who came from a large family, considers this support network sacrosanct. "We are a family of women, although we still live under the patriarchal rules of my long-dead father," Bell says. "We close ranks when one of us is hurt or in need. In the vernacular of the South, where I'm from: 'You mess with one, you mess with all.'"

And in their case, a family that stays together, sings together.

In 1967, Gladys Bell's older sister, Precious Bell, put together a community choir to sing Negro spirituals, gospel, and other religious music such as Handel's Messiah. Over the years, Voices of Faith has traveled the country and internationally, singing in Manhattan churches and on the Washington Mall. As a child, Katrina Bell attended nearly all the shows. "At one point they said, 'You might as well come over here and take a seat because you know all the songs,'" McDonald remembers. At 11, she became the youngest member of the choir.

To identify a broad array of black women for her current study, McDonald is tapping a classic cross-class meeting place: the hair salon. McDonald was--and is--her mother's source of pride. For many years Bell worked as a legal secretary, nurse's aide, and in other jobs to support her daughter.

When McDonald was a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, Bell started studying for her own undergraduate degree in American studies and signed up for the classes her daughter taught. "I would start out class by saying 'See that lady at the top of the room? That's my mom,'" McDonald recalls.

Eventually the students forgot and would complain about their teacher in earshot of Bell, who would then launch into a public scolding. Says McDonald of her mother, "She's a lioness. She is fierce about her family and smart. My mother who had nothing made sure I had private violin lessons or could take trips with the band. I didn't know it then, but I now know she had to sacrifice a lot when I was growing up."

Bell is now the graduate program coordinator of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She says it was all worth it. "I'm amazed at the things she has accomplished. She frightened me by applying to only one school for both her undergrad and graduate work, but she had enough confidence to know that her academic skills were on a par with anyone."

And she does mean anyone. "My mother will run into parents of my high school friends and every time she talks about me I'm a notch higher," McDonald says. "Now, I've become the president of Hopkins."

Before McDonald established her academic trajectory, she explored a number of fields, which gave her a broader understanding of workplace culture. In high school, and during college summers, she interned as a production assistant at the local Sacramento ABC News affiliate. She tagged along to cover the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, and even talked to the nation's first black presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, by phone.

After earning degrees in communication, including a master's in applied communication research from Stanford, McDonald worked in newspaper marketing and later ran a computer lab in the social sciences department at California State University, Hayward. There, after co-teaching classes on research methods and race and gender issues, she found herself drawn to sociology and was accepted into the PhD program at UC, Davis.

"Sociology really allows you to study anything you want," she says. "Once I got into it, I realized it posed interesting questions that I was already asking myself. What is the nature of the social world? What is the future of America?"

When McDonald received the invitation to join the Hopkins sociology faculty in the mid-'90s, she was finishing her dissertation. But there were complications. Her son, Jordan, was 4, and she was engaged to his father, Ray McDonald, who had been married before and had two children of his own living in California. The couple was in the midst of a six-year engagement. "I said, 'God, whatever blessings you have stored up for Katrina, send them now,'" she says.

They married in a ceremony at her going-away party in California, and Ray, a computer technician, applied for a job as a police officer in Baltimore City; he is now a patrolman in the Northwest District. His son, David, lives with the family (his daughter, Sharon, is a sophomore at Howard University). Also living in their home near the Homewood campus in Oakenshawe is Tia Woodard, a Hopkins student who Katrina offered to board--an invitation she extends to African American sociology students whenever she can.

Her work life, home life, scholarly life, and spiritual life often mingle. "She is doing what she's called to do," says Ray. "And whatever needs to be done, she does it."

When trying to get David, 15, enrolled in a city magnet school a week before classes started in the fall, McDonald quickly slid her business card across the desk in desperation. "See, I'm a professor at Hopkins, at Johns Hopkins," she reenacts later, underlining the name with her finger. The principal laughed. David got in.

A lot can be done, if one is focused, or scattered enough, as the case may be. McDonald one afternoon checks her calendar to figure out her appointments. She's got a Cajun dance with Jordan on Friday, baseball on Saturday, the social justice class she teaches at University Baptist Church on Sunday, as well as a date to give the dog a bath.

"There's the wife thing, the mother thing, the daughter thing, the teacher thing, the volunteer thing," she says. "But I've always been that way. I can't live unless I'm too involved."

It's 1 p.m., and McDonald stands in front of her Race Relations class in 110 Maryland Hall. She is here in her "Hopkinsness," as she would say, her curly hair pulled back with a headband, today's readings on economic sociology laid out before her. She's not exactly on a pedestal, but she's certainly in the spotlight.

There are several Asian American students and a dozen African American men and women in her class, but most of the students she teaches are white. "I challenge any one of us to define what is the American identity," McDonald poses to them.

David Sparks, a freshman mechanical engineering major, raises his hand: "There's the American apple pie, baseball, and Fourth of July idea of America," he says. "But is that a white, middle class, '50s sitcom sort of identity? Is that really an American identity?"

The question seems basic. But it comes back to labels, and how people categorize themselves and one another. Sparks, who is white, later says he's a conservative, which he describes as someone who is anti-affirmative action, against reparations for descendants of slaves, more hesitant to spend money and change things, and thinks the "playing field is level, so minorities should be able to come up on their own." He concedes that most of these descriptions don't exactly fit him, but he usually finds himself in the Republican camp on issues.

Sparks is in the course, he says, partly because Professor McDonald is not politically like him. "I like to see what current trends are in the race relations field, and open my eyes to different viewpoints," Sparks explains. "I think it's good for me."

Back in her office after class, McDonald sits down with her two teaching assistants, sociology graduate students Bedelia Richards and Adia Harvey, both African American, to talk about student feedback.

One student, when told he could not pass the course because he missed most of the semester, asked McDonald: "Just how long have you worked here?" The assistants say that some students want to hear more from scholars like University of California at Berkeley's linguistics professor John H. McWhorter, whose controversial book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America argues that the black community is falling behind because of a refusal to assimilate, creating a sort of "cult of victimology."

McDonald says she plans to refer to McWhorter's work, as well as discuss intelligence research that argues that blacks are intellectually inferior. "I don't want them to think this course is propaganda," she tells her teaching assistants. Issues covered in the course include hate crimes, affirmative action, and changing U.S. laws governing immigration.

Race, after all, is a touchy subject and conflicts over attitudes can become more personal.

McDonald is known as a tough professor who doesn't back down when students miss class and try to get by doing minimal make-up work. One student, when told he could not pass the course because he missed most of the semester, asked McDonald: "Just how long have you worked here?" Richards and Harvey say such attitudes are not uncommon. "I think it's more pronounced because she is black and female and in a position of authority," Harvey says. "If there's a male professor or a white professor, students rarely say he is being 'overbearing' or question his authority."

Scholars outside Hopkins echo the graduate students' sentiments. Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history at Princeton, laments student attacks on black professors' qualifications and teaching styles, some of which are a backlash against affirmative action policies. "The reluctance to accept that blackness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive affects black faculty members, whatever their field," Painter wrote in the December 15 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article headlined "Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception."

Says McDonald, who notes such problems don't occur frequently at Hopkins: "I don't take it personally. But I let them know it's important to me."

Being one of a handful of black professors on campus carries other burdens. McDonald is in a great deal of demand. There are the African American students like Harvey, who says she came to study at Hopkins partly because of McDonald. McDonald spends hours each week helping students focus their dissertations, translate sociology jargon, survive other professors' classes or the Hopkins culture, and prepare for job searches. "She's overburdened with the mentoring of graduate students and undergraduate students disproportionately," says Mark King, who was a TA for McDonald last fall. Adds Varner-Gaskins, of Multicultural Student Affairs: "What happens for black students, especially, they are always looking for role models. So when they find a black professor, they kind of grab on."

McDonald also has served on 15 diversity panels and search committees in the past four years, including as co-chair of the African Descent Working Group, an effort launched by Herbert Kessler, former dean of Arts & Sciences. That group was set up to define race issues on campus and to help recruit and retain minorities--goals that, despite focused efforts in recent years, have been slow to realize, according to McDonald and others. Of 365 tenured and tenure-track professors at Homewood (in Arts & Sciences and Engineering), nine are African American.

On the committees, "if they want to have a black represented and a woman, she's a two-for," King says. "At the same time, she has a very strong sense of duty about it all."

"Part of my role," McDonald affirms, "is to make it easier for the next generation of black students. I see this as a cultural responsibility."

McDonald at home with her son, Jordan, and husband, Ray. Seated across from her are Ray's son, David, and Hopkins graduate student Tia Woodard, who boards with the family. In some ways, McDonald and the university are still in a Catch-22: If the few African American professors feel overburdened and isolated, they might leave; yet if they and the university don't set aside time for these issues--by fostering debate via committees, pressing for more African American-related courses, and mentoring future black academics--the balance won't shift. "The more you increase the diversity of faculty, the more that will draw more diverse faculty and students, and that's the kind of relationship you want," says Edgar Roulhac, Hopkins vice provost for academic services. "Diversity means quality-- there are a lot of points of views and skills brought to a given situation.

"Yet we are grappling with an issue that is very real," Roulhac adds. "At nearly any institution of higher learning, Hopkins included, the critical mass of African American faculty is small, so the onus is upon African Americans to serve the institution's goals at the same time they need to serve themselves and devote time to scholarly work." Minority professors need to feel they can say no, he says.

The pressure does concern some of McDonald's colleagues. Varner-Gaskins has sat with McDonald on a number of committees and counseled some of her students: "I tell Katrina, 'You are in a very vulnerable position. We need you here at Hopkins but don't burn out. How can we help you? Can I bring you a basket of fruit? Whatever will help.'"

Or as former Hopkins colleague Fernandez-Kelly notes: "Katrina brings a warmth that is inspirational to young people. She keeps vibrant ties to the local community. I've been worried that her attention to her students and community would not be rewarded in the academy. I was very glad to hear she was just promoted to associate professor."

McDonald earned her promotion in March, six and a half years after she arrived at Hopkins. She had fretted about the outcome of the decision because donning so many identities has cut into the time she needs to write a plethora of journal articles--the bread and butter of the bid for tenure. At the same time, she also was being wooed for a position at the University of Florida, which she turned down this spring.

After the schoolwide faculty committee voted to promote her, her sociology colleagues sent her flowers and honored her with a reception. Yet when the bouquet was delivered to her office, some in the department worried that it looked too small to express their heartfelt appreciation. A few days later, a second bouquet arrived on her desk.

McDonald took the second tribute home to her family.

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson ( is a senior writer for the magazine.

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