This week, we are focusing on supporting and centering Black women in higher education, whose struggles are not properly accounted for when issues relating to women are discussed. In discussing how Black women navigate and experience higher education, it is important to recognize that higher education is shaped by the intersection of white supremacy and sexism. “Whiteness” and white supremacy within our society can be understood as an “ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ spaces . . . and what it is that bodies ‘can do’” (Ahmed, 2007, p.150). When combined with sexist, patriarchal structures that reward adherence to gender roles and punish deviancy from these gendered expectations, the experiences of those who do not fit in at the intersection of both white supremacy and patriarchy become further nuanced. Higher education is a space that particularly reproduces these systems in unique ways, which undergird the negative experiences of Black women we will discuss in these tips.
Reflect: What kind of representation do you see of Black women in your field?
Take a moment and think about who you see reflected in your field. How many Black women do you see in your classroom(s)? How many Black women do you see at the top/as an “expert” in your field? In what ways are Black women present in the data used by your field? According to the AAUW, Black women are represented at much lower rates in undergraduate education (particularly STEM), despite being one of the fastest growing populations. At the graduate level, there are over a dozen academic fields that have never (or only very recently) had a Black student earn a doctoral degree (Harris, 2019). This disparity translates to Black women being only 2.1% of all tenured faculty (June & O’Leary, 2021). The underrepresentation of Black women in higher education at all levels results from historical issues of systemic access, as well as the on-going interpersonal manifestations of gendered, racial bias.
Learn: The Reality of Higher Education for Black Women
Reinforcing structural racism in higher education (particularly in STEM; McGee, 2020), Black women students routinely endure microaggressions about their ability to succeed and their place in the higher education (Charleston et al., 2014; McPhearson, 2017). Black women faculty and staff often have similar experiences unique to their work context. In the classroom setting, Black women faculty must manage the behaviors of white students who perpetuate gendered, racist attitudes that undermine their position as faculty members (Ford, 2011; Pittman, 2010). Because these women are often positioned as one of the only people of color in their departments, their demands of service and teaching can take on forms that differ from their white, male counterparts (Griffin et al., 2013), including dealing with tokenizing requests for service (Dickens et al., 2020; called “identity taxation” [Hirschfield & Joseph, 2012]). The dehumanizing stereotypes of the “Strong Black Woman” or “Angry Black Woman” create another layer of stress for how these women respond to the overarching and overpowering presence of gendered racism (Corbin et al., 2018). Attempting to offset lowered sense of belonging and mental health (Dortch & Patel, 2017; Golden, 2017), Black women often seek out resources within/outside their institution that challenge gendered racism and center their voices – such as counterspaces (Ong et al., 2018), mentorship (Dickens et al., 2021), and developing counternarratives of their ability to succeed (e.g., #BlackGirlMagic; Morton & Parsons, 2018).
- Reframe what you think success for Black women looks like: While what we often offer through these tips are individual ways to be an ally, we want to emphasize first the experiences and needs of Black women as a result of systems of oppression that reach far beyond one person. Many recommendations discuss helping Black women succeed in the current state of higher education; however, we should ask ourselves how these initiatives – often meant to increase “resilience” - actually encourage assimilation into sexist, racist structures rather than liberation from these structures (McGee, 2020; Morton & Nkrumah, 2021). In addition to initiatives intended to help Black women cope with layered experiences with gendered racism, re-examine the structures in your classroom, office, working group, and beyond that reproduce whiteness/patriarchy. Reconsider the policy and collective values that need to be changed to offset the labor that Black women are forced to undertake (personal, professional, and emotional) to overcome the systemic barriers put in front of them in higher education.
- Avoid the “Bait & Switch”: A common urge when addressing the gendered racism embedded in higher education is to simply increase the recruitment of Black women students, faculty, and staff. While this urge is important and should be undertaken, this recruitment only addresses half the problem if it is not followed up with the necessary support to offset oppression/bias in your community. This “Bait & Switch” effect allows different areas of higher education to say that they promote diversity and inclusion while never fulfilling/following up on those promises once people with marginalized identities get through the door (Slay et al., 2019). Evaluate where you communicate diversity and inclusion in your department/office, classroom, and personal life and compare that communication with how you actually center, support, and advocate for Black women in those spaces (Matthews et al., 2021). Challenge your peers to develop behaviors and beliefs that with show allyship and care for these women in ways that signal safety for their identities (Johnson et al., 2019).
Weekly Resource Recommendations
- Book: Critical Perspectives on Black Women and College Success – This edited volume explores the complex lives of Black undergraduate women and deconstructs myths surrounding them.
- Video: Black Women in Higher Education – This conversation features Valerie Smiths’s experiences/perspectives on the state of Black women in higher education today.
- Article: Why College-Educated Black Women are Threats in 2021 - Asha Alston takes a look at the historical legacy of Black women and their future in higher education.
- Podcast: This Prof Life: Women of Color in Higher Education – Dr. Pat Sanders speaks with and about women of color in higher education and their resilience/resistance to gendered racism.
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