Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Identity and Representation

BOND: Now, you were Chairman of the Caucus in the California Assembly?

WATSON: Senate.

BOND: Senate. You're a member of the Congressional Black Caucus today.


BOND: When people think about you, some people say, "Oh yes, the black congresswoman from Los Angeles" or "the other black congresswoman from Los Angeles." Is that divisive, these organizations that are single ethnic identity and this designation of you as a black congresswoman? Does that separate us?

WATSON: I've had that experience from the time I was in the Senate. They would — I'd go places with my colleagues and this was Senator [David] Roberti, Senator [Nicholas C.] Petra, Senator [Joseph] Montoya and [Sen.] Diane [Feinstein]. Or they'd say, "Now, which one is the senator here? Well, can't we call you senatoress?" I said, "No, senator is the neutral term, call me senator." And, you know, I had to weave my way through that all of the time and I am called by another member's name all of the time, because a lot of people don't distinguish between black people. You know, I have fought that all of my adult life.

BOND: That's one thing, but what about people who say, "Oh, yes, she's one of the black congresspersons from California" instead of "she's one of the congresspersons from Los Angeles."

WATSON: Exactly.

BOND: Not male/female — black.

WATSON: I think we endure and when you have an opportunity in a situation to clarify, that's fine, but most often you're not present when they say, "Oh, she's one of the black congresspersons." Well, we have a Black Caucus and it no longer stresses me out because I've dealt with it for so long. You just move ahead. I've always been the only one in my group, wherever I was, and I've had to deal with it. And you know, people found me very curious because I would be the only black person that they ever saw in life. I taught school in Okinawa. We would go to islands that are not even mapped and they'd look at me, you know, and they'd want to touch my skin, my hair and followed me around because they never saw anyone like me. And it was uncomfortable in the beginning, but I got used to it.