Supporting Black Women Beyond BHM

For Black History Month, we wanted to start with a conversation about the experiences of Black women in 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 is 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’.”1 As white supremacy intersects with patriarchy, Black women are placed in uniquely difficult positions about ways to act and simply be. Higher education is a space that particularly reproduces these systems in unique ways, undergirding the negative experiences we discuss in these tips.

Reflect: What kind of representation do you see of Black women in your field?

Think about who you see reflected in your field. How many Black women do you see in your classroom? How many Black women do you see at the top or as an “expert” in your field? In what ways are Black women present in the data used by your field? Black women are represented at much lower rates in undergraduate education (particularly STEM),2 despite being one of the fastest growing undergraduate populations and there being a storied history of Black women inventors (such as Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner). 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.3 This disparity translates to Black women being only 2.1% of all tenured faculty.4 The underrepresentation of Black women in higher education at all levels results from historical issues of systemic access, as well as the on-going manifestations of gendered, racial bias.

Learn: The Reality of Higher Education for Black Women

Black women students routinely endure microaggressions about their ability to succeed and their place in the higher education,5, 6 particularly in STEM.7 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.8, 9 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,10 including tokenizing requests for service.11, 12 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.13 Attempting to offset lowered sense of belonging and mental health,14, 15 Black women often seek out resources within and outside their institution that challenge gendered racism and center their voices – such as counterspaces,16 mentorship,17 and developing counternarratives (e.g., #BlackGirlMagic).18


  • Discussion questions: Think through the following questions with those around you. How are Black women represented in your life? In what ways does gendered anti-Blackness get perpetuated around you? How do we deconstruct gendered anti-Blackness in the structures of our daily lives? How can we celebrate Black women in meaningful, unproblematic ways, even when they are not in the room?
  • 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. 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.19, 20 Re-examine the structures in your classroom, office, working group, and beyond that reproduce whiteness/patriarchy, such as expectations for behavior. 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.
  • 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.21 Evaluate how you communicate diversity and inclusion in your department/office, classroom, and personal life; compare that communication with how you actually center, support, and advocate for Black women in those spaces.22 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.23

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