Cover Story: I'm Worth It

In three views, self esteem stares back

Una-Kariim Cross

Stuck in the middle with you.

Facing Michelle Edwards, I see at least three ways of looking at black women. There is how I'm looking at this black woman.

There's how she looks at black women.

Finally, there's how she's looking at me, a woman who is not black, as I try drawing out absolutes I was unable to dredge or make up.

See, originally this was to be my story: How a white woman really looks at black women. But I couldn't find anything consistently different in the ways I look at the black women I know. I decided black women can be just as brilliant or annoying as anyone else I know.

Now I'm realizing that, instead, I've chosen to profile a woman who's tried just as hard not to see her world in black and white. Of course, that's one of the reasons she intrigued me.

As Councilman Christopher Smitherman's chief of staff, Edwards, 33, comes off strong, intelligent and reserved every time I talk to her at City Hall. With ramrod straight posture and a poker face, she exudes an air of business: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Now, though, she's much more relaxed. Lively, even. And she keeps asking me to clarify the vague questions I steer her back to about black women.

Edwards, with braids and Baker's chocolate skin and high cheekbones, grew up with a biracial, freckle-faced stepsister.

"But she's my sister and that's what I tell people," she says. "One of the greatest things that I think my parents did, when she would go visit her (white) mom, they included me," she says of her mother and former stepfather.

But Edwards does have a definite bias.

"If I'm prejudiced against anything," she says, "I'm prejudiced against people who are not aggressively saving."

That fiscal responsibility is something she picked up from Smitherman and passes on to her children. She met the financial planner-turned-politician in 1991 at Bowling Green State University. She was a sophomore, and he was head of her residence hall.

"One of the first things I learned from Christopher, he told me back in college, 'You need to start saving money,' " she says.

Partly by coincidence, partly by design, she shadowed Smitherman throughout a decade in residence hall administration. He recruited her to work in a new program he designed at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, where she also topped her bachelor's degree in criminal justice (minor in ethnic studies) with a master's in business administration. She also took part in a program Smitherman developed called "Let's Talk About Race."

When they both ended up in Cincinnati, Smitherman again recruited her, this time to run his 2003 city council campaign and then his City Hall office after he won.

Edwards has been married nine years to Deon and has three children, each close in age to one of Smitherman's. But when she talks about race in Cincinnati, her thoughts immediately turn to her only son.

"I know (racism) exists for women, too, but it just seems different," she says. "I worry about my son more. I think that black males are just not looked at in a positive way."

Edwards says black women have it easier than men. "We're stronger. Not physically, but maybe emotionally and mentally. Because we have so many responsibilities that we can manage, I think we multi-task a lot better. That goes for white women as well as black women."

As for her two daughters, Edwards is most concerned about relationships they'll enter.

"It's not a race thing for me," she says. "My kids can date whoever they want, they can bring anyone home, and I encourage that. I don't want my kids to hook up with someone who doesn't bring anything to the table. I hope that doesn't sound terrible," she says.

"I do think that maybe, culturally, it might be different or harder if you're with someone who doesn't have a job," she says. "I think there are a lot of black men on the corners and stuff, and women get hooked up with these men and they're not good for them because they're not doing anything, you know?"

She says the underlying current of anger she sees in some blacks is justified. "Black people have a right to be angry based on what has happened to black people in this country. That is not an excuse. You've got to take responsibility for your own actions and your own life."

She just took her oldest daughter, 8-year-old Taylor, to see a documentary at the YWCA called Batterers Will Kill.

"Self esteem is really important," she says. "Even when I was listening to the discussion last night, it seems that the women who were murdered didn't have that self-esteem. They didn't reach out, they didn't say anything, they just took it. You can't do that — you're worth it."

But again she amends. "But then I think that's everybody's problem. Everybody can be with the wrong guy, no matter what race you are."

I tell her I've heard black women complain that a good black man is hard to find. The black man in the booth behind us at Tucker's pipes up, vehemently disagreeing.

I've also been asked if I see black women merely as competition for the affections of white men. That had never occurred to me, but then I thought of another gripe I've heard more frequently, that black men overlook perfectly amazing black women in favor of white women.

"I've heard people say that," Edwards says. "I find that, yeah, as people go up the ladder sometimes, successful black men marry white women."

Edwards doesn't judge or blame them. "I think you can't help who you fall in love with. It doesn't matter what their race is."

Or maybe some black men simply prefer certain white women because they've been socialized differently. "I've heard people say things like, 'Oh, you know, white woman are easier, less stress, less attitude, and this is why black men date white women.' "

Whoever says that isn't talking about her friends.

"The white women I know don't take crap from anybody," she says.

Actually, anyone who dates along racial lines frustrates Edwards, who describes one lonely black friend who refuses to date white men.

"Now I understand that if culturally you're not on the same page, in terms of they don't understand your struggle," Edwards says. "But you just can't do that. I said, 'That's your biggest problem right there. You can't limit yourself.' " ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.