We wanted to hear directly from black women about the challenges in their lives--the feelings and frustrations they share regardless of profession, education, class or skin color. At the table: "The View" host Star Jones, ABC correspondent Deborah Roberts, singer and actress Beyonce Knowles, money manager Mellody Hobson, bank CEO Deborah Wright, rapper Foxy Brown and Teri Woods, a single mother and former paralegal who has started her own publishing business. They talked candidly--and sometimes painfully--about the choices they confront. Some excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why are black women, as a group, so successful?
Star Jones: Well, I grew up in a family of very strong black women. My mother left me with my grandparents to go back to school. That was a big example to me. I could certainly do no less.
Deborah Wright: My mom was a teacher, and we had extended families all on the block. All those women's expectations were, we were going to take what they had done and triple it. And every single one of us went off to elite colleges and we're all doctors, lawyers, this and that.
Deborah Roberts: I think that's true. But also we can't discount the fact that society seems to be embracing us more. I think in the corporate culture, bosses are more comfortable with women--much more than they would be with a black man.
Mellody Hobson: One of the things that's also in our favor is that we stand out. And when you go in prepared and qualified--you stand out that much more.
Has this helped our self-esteem? Many of us grew up with no dad to boost our self-respect.
Beyonce Knowles: Well, my father is a big part of my life, and that has always made me feel safe because I knew he was always there. Even now I don't need a man because I have someone who loves me and supports me without fail.
Hobson: I came to the same point as Beyonce, but for different reasons. My father was never there. So I was always trying to prove something to this person that I didn't know, as well as the rest of the world.
Jones: I grew up with my stepfather, who made a point of making me and my sister feel we belonged. My stepfather's love and devotion and the wonderful way he treats my mother--that's the kind of man I want.
Foxy Brown: I know my dad, and I love him dearly, but he didn't live with us. I think because of that I always hung on to guys too tight. I think it makes you lack confidence as a woman in your own skin without your father.
What are things like in the workplace? Do you feel you are treated equally?
Hobson: It's hard, because I can go for days and never see another person of color in any senior position. People come into my office all the time where I'm the president of the firm, and they give me their coat and ask me for coffee because they don't know who I am. So I go hang up the coat, get the coffee and then sit at the head of the table. [Laughter]
Jones: We as black women have to be smarter--we have to know both cultures. I go and get my hair done at the black beauty salon, I go to church with primarily African-Americans, and I'm just as real there as I am when I go to the White House and have dinner with Hillary and Bill Clinton.
At work, what are your relationships like with the white women there?
Teri Woods: It doesn't work for me at all. I worked eight years as a paralegal, and I couldn't keep a job for all the friction and hatred thrown out at me by the white women there. It had nothing to do with me being a good paralegal or a good secretary. It had to do with all that extra stuff that comes with being a minority. You just can't win--they don't want you to.
Wright: You need a road map, and oftentimes it's going to have to come from another black person. I started my career in investment banking, and it was a disaster. Here I was with three Harvard degrees and thought I was going to be the first black woman partner on Wall Street. But I was in and out of there in three years.
Wright: Because it's a whole language that you're not in on as a minority. I was working until 3 in the morning like I was working at a factory, working hard on a presentation for the next week. But the decisions were being made on the golf course.
Jones: I've been lucky. To have Barbara Walters take you under her wing as a broadcaster--what could be any better? But one thing I've learned is that you have to socialize in different settings. Deborah [Roberts] and I do it all the time, and oftentimes we are the only two black women in the room. But you have to do things that you might not classically think to do as an African-American.
Is it still true that as blacks we have to be better than our white peers to advance?
Knowles: I know for me, I take that negative energy that I sometimes feel in the business and I use that to work extra, extra hard. When I was on the Super Bowl pre-show, I was the only black girl. I spent my own money to hire special people to get me ready. I had extra rehearsals. It's like you have something to prove, and you don't want to mess it up and be a negative reflection on black women.
The stats say black women are almost five times as likely as white women to still be unmarried at 40. Is the problem finding black men with similar educations and incomes?
Knowles: It is a little scary, especially for the people younger than me. I look at my sister and then at my future kids' generation and wonder who's going to be there for them to marry. It's so difficult to find someone out there that is compatible when you're a successful black woman.
Hobson: That's why you have to keep your options open and date whoever you like.
Brown: I don't think it's that big a deal, because from back in the day, black women have been raising our kids without a man in the household. We're used to being alone.
Wright: Yeah, but there are days when I walk out of a boardroom at Kraft Foods and think it would be nice, frankly, to call somebody and say, "Baby, you're not going to believe what happened today." To be able to share that would really make a difference.
Woods: I think we need to think about getting a man when he gets out of prison, where most of them get sent because no one cares about them. You're not going to find one out here because most of them are either in jail, gay or taken.
Jones: I don't think that's so at all.
Woods: I'm not saying it's a great option, but I am saying that's where a lot of our men are--in jail. And we need to support them. Many are good brothers.[Silence around the table]
That is a real option, right? Dating men just out of jail. What are the other options? Dating outside the race? Dating someone of less education or income?
Jones: There are people who would say we're too picky. They've said that to me. But I think we have to look at all our options, and that means people of all colors.
Brown: So you would date someone white?
Jones: Right, if you asked me to write down what my ideal in a man would be, I'd say an African-American and Christian man. But if you said to me, what if you meet someone who is not an African-American, smart, gifted and talented--I'm not going to rule that out. I don't look at race as the definitive part of who I can date.
Wright: I have several friends who say, "Hey, I want somebody who knows what it feels like to go in the boardroom and kick butt and come back out." That may mean you have to marry someone that's not black. I know that may have certain implications for our race that are very, very difficult, such as keeping wealth in the black family and having kids we can pass stories down to.
Brown: I would like to ask you ladies about a problem I have. What do you do if you're dating someone who makes less money, and he's supportive but still struggles with it?
Jones: Sometimes you just have to move on.
Brown: What sense does that make? Our mothers did it. So that's what I'm asking: if we are more and more the breadwinners and men sometimes have problems with that--how do we do it? You can't just move on.
Wright: Time out--you're not listening to what she's saying. She's saying that if you are with someone who has a problem with the money you make, then it might not be worth it. Maybe you can't get past that.
Brown: Even if I love him and he loves me?
Jones: If it's about money or their own lack of confidence--that's a hard hurdle to jump in a relationship.
As black women, we're always very loyal to black men. Is that loyalty returned to us?
Jones: We are the caretakers. That's the nature of black women, historically.
Knowles: I'm proud of that part of being an African-American woman--that I'm naturally nurturing and I care about my community, my race and my brothers. I don't have a problem with that whatsoever.
But again, what about black men's loyalty to us? More black men marry outside the race than black women do. That's not a problem?
Jones: You could become bitter. I won't tell you who, because I'm going to protect a black man [laughter], but there is a brother who is a popular actor who is marrying outside his race. He was on the show, and so was the woman. I received hundreds of letters about this. Most were African-American women, and the point they made was "Damn, we lost another brother."
Wright: I do feel sad about it. Our experience as a race is a unique one and a special one, one that I would love to see continue.
Roberts: I don't think we need to be saddened or bitter. I mean, we were just talking about possibly dating outside the race. I don't think we have the right to be angry at black men who may marry outside the race.
Wright: But when you step back from it and you look at what's promoted in our society--I don't think this is a coincidence that all these men are making that decision to marry outside.
Brown: That's true--it's the blond hair and the blues eyes that are promoted.
That's my next question: what about our beauty and how it is perceived and portrayed?
Brown: That's important. I want to ask, "What about the very Brown girls? What happens to us?" I mean, all my childhood I was called names like "Blackie." There weren't any dark Brown female role models that I could look up to. In school I never got the guys--they wanted the lighter-skinned girls. It's funny that they want white women when the white women are going to tanning salons to get darker and getting their lips bigger.
Knowles: Well, I could complain about being light-skinned. But that's life. People judge you by the way you look, unfortunately, before they speak to you.
Jones: I'm a full-figured, Brown-skinned woman. If I spent my time dwelling on what I'm not, in comparison to what the magazines say everybody should be, I would be a very sad and lonely girl.
Roberts: Uppermost in my mind with my daughter is making sure she's equipped with confidence. She's already noticing the difference in her skin and the other girls' lighter skin. I want her to feel wonderful about who she is, and I want my son to appreciate his sister and all women in all shades.
Let's close with what we see in our future. One of the most famous lines of a black love story is in the movie "Mahogany," when the Billy Dee Williams character says to the Diana Ross character, "Success means nothing without someone to share it with." Do we all agree?
Jones: There's not one black woman that doesn't know that line.
Wright: Well, being single is not being alone--we have to remember that. It would be great to be married and to find that perfect person. But I'm still a whole person one way or another.
Woods: Yeah, but I don't want to be alone. I don't want to not know what it means to have that love in my life.
Jones: It would not be complete for me either. I want babies and love in my life. He has to be someone who can argue with me about affirmative action and who's going to win the Super Bowl.