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SAN FRANCISCO -- This is what it must be like to be the child of a shattered and demanding family. To be constantly ambushed by pop quizzes about your loyalty. To be asked to pledge allegiance to part of your heritage and to deny part of your reality. To have to choose.

On the day the O.J. verdict came down, you could hear stunned white women saying to each other, barely out of earshot of black friends and co-workers: "So much for sisterhood."

When a black professional woman in Boston disagreed with the verdict and broke ranks with her nephews who were celebrating with high-fives, she was given a scornful look by the 16-year-old that said: So much for sisterhood.

When a black woman was asked what she thought about the Million Man March in Washington, a men-only gathering next week that had relegated women to organizing, her sigh echoed: So much for sisterhood.

And when this same woman told a black co-worker how she felt, he turned on her, saying that any black woman who didn't support the need for brothers to march strong and apart from women wasn't "a real sister."

This is what it's like for many, perhaps most, African-American women. Divided by race and gender and yet a composite of race and gender. A two-fer and yet the bearer of a double burden.

The poorest rungs

African-American women occupy the poorest rungs of society. But often they are more educated than black men, sometimes more welcome by the white working world that may feel threatened by their "brothers." Many are simultaneously aware of the obstacles their men face and disappointed by the shortage of "marriageable" black men. To say that all women are "multi-identified," that we all have multiple claims of background and beliefs on our loyalty, barely touches the dimension of the problem among black women.

These claims are especially wrenching when the world demands that sides be taken. Clarence Thomas. Mike Tyson. And now with the O.J. verdict, when allegiance to a black man who married and, at least, beat a white woman becomes a test of sisterhood with men who face their share of Mark Fuhrmans.

Running this seemingly endless gantlet of loyalty tests, black women are asked to decide what they are rather than to explain who they are. it isn't just the sense of sisterhood that they must hold secure. It's a strong sense of self.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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