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Black Women and Academia

In the talk with Tressie McMillan Cottom & Carla Shedd, it was truly the very, very end that resonated with me. It has only been this semester, after 2 and a half years of college, that I have had the pleasure of having a Black Woman professor as a mentor for a fellowship:

Let alone never having one as a professor in the classroom.

When the fellowship requirements made clear that I would need to have a full-time faculty “mentor” on the books, my mind started to take inventory of all the professors I have made contact with over the last year or so. But after filtering through dozens of professors — some of them exceptional and with heavy impact on my life — as if from outer space, a thought occurred to ask the Black Woman Professor that had helped me navigate applying for the fellowship and was the acting director of it, to be my mentor, and to my joy she accepted.

When I asked her to be my mentor, we had a total of 2 or 3 prior zoom calls and no in-class history. Her field of was American Black history — mine is 20th century African decolonial theory, perhaps close enough but not a love connection. So why had I chosen her? It was because she was a Black Woman (and nice enough), and I let her know straight up. The Black Woman, just like Dr. Cottom spoke about: so marginalized in academia but at once able to unsettle a room and ground a conversation.

So voiceless in public spaces, but at once a voice of reason, nurture and protection. I just wanted a Black Woman, just like my mother, by my side — but in this case helping me navigate an academic world that is disheartening, frustrating and performative.

I have had a pattern making itself clear in regards to white women — specifically older white women — in academic spaces. It would suffice to say that we, in fact, don’t jive. I sent a text to a friend, in regard to an older white woman professor demanding that I turn my camera on:

Every old ass white lady i’ve ever met is always trying to boss me around and shit

shit is starting to irritate me

It was cute at first

But now I’m starting to have a problem

Now, the ask might seem minuscule, but it’s the principle and the pattern.

It’s the passive-aggressiveness.

It’s the pimping out of BIPOC struggle by white women — a historical phenomenon.

It’s the being told that I’m too aggressive by a white woman.

It’s the comment on my paper that I wrote “too colloquial” by a white woman, when in fact, I can dance circles around grammar and syntax, but choose to make my writing accessible and not full of it.

It’s the being told to dress differently by a white woman.

Yes, it’s the navigating the academic world as a Woman. as a Black Woman. as a half-Hispanic Woman. as a Woman with tattoos. as a Woman with a lot to say. as Woman who has been militant-ized by the writings of Fanon or Rodney. as a Woman who has never had a Black Woman as a professor, the whole time I’ve been in college.

Yes, it’s me refusing to lose my identity to work in an academia male, pale and stale. It’s me refusing to be the yes-woman that Black Women are programmed to be, kept in check by white women. So yes, I chose a professor the same reason why half the population voted for Obama — because she’s Black.

So, of course I want to see more Black Women — the most educated of the American population — to be on tenure-track and high level administration. But we should not put these burdens on the shoulders of Black Women, to be protectors or guiders. It is up to the student population to make their voices heard, to say no to code-switching, to stand-up in the face of conformity towards an outdated political and educational system.

But in the meantime, it feels good, real good to have my mentor.

6 thoughts on “Black Women and Academia

  • October 9, 2020 at 5:52 pm
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    Hi Kai,
    I agree with you that the end of Dr. Cottom and Dr. Shedd’s talk was really powerful and resonated with me as well. When the question of how graduate students of color survive in the academy which we know are often white, and male dominated institutions and as we know are not designed for us to thrive in it reminds me a lot of what you wrote about in this post. I love that Dr. Shedd spoke about the impact of Black woman in the classroom, the difference it makes not even from just academically but how students of color can see themselves from viewing these women in these spaces, and how much expansion is needed to increase the amount of Black professors in higher Ed. This post you wrote is powerful as it speaks to so many students of color’s experience and yearning and dire need for more Black and diverse faculty. I love that you wrote you refuse to loose your identity to work in a space not conducive to who you are, which Dr. Cottom spoke about when she said make sure you know who you are when you enter Graduate school and her mentor telling her upon entry that it’s not her job to change the institution but her job is to not let the institution change her and the importance of protecting yourself from the harm that we come into and endure in those spaces.

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  • October 13, 2020 at 6:37 pm
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    I love this! We need more call-outs like this in academia! It is crucial for everyone to hear and grapple with the fact that the foundational structure of academia itself is exclusionary to your identity, and the identity of so many more people. That higher education was built to serve white rich men (or to help poor white men assimilate into the middle class), and that merely existing within academia means that so many students (and staff and faculty) are daily experiencing identity conflicts. Even when faculty and administrators pay attention to representation — which authors we’re choosing, who is included in the canon we’re presenting, which faculty are teaching, how underrepresented faculty are supported, who is at the table in making decisions, etc. — there is so much about academia that is already made without that representation. Seemingly small decisions over writing style or social microinterventions are real, felt battlegrounds for people of color, and especially women of color. They are spaces and ways that we fight for our identity in a way that white folks, particularly white men, won’t ever be asked to do.

    I also deeply appreciate your call at the end of your post to other students to make their voices known! There is a trade-off in hierarchies between power and freedom. The way I used to openly and publicly critique and push back on faculty who used sexist or racist language in my classrooms as an undergraduate, is no longer an available strategy for me as an administrator. I may have more power than the students I work with, but my strategies have to be different in order to be legible within the system I’m trying to change. But, with the power I have, I can certainly stand up for students when they speak out, and reinforce that we should all — in our positions of power and privilege — listen to their critique. More people in academia need to hear your voice and your critique! It’s so powerful!

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  • October 27, 2020 at 2:56 pm
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    This is really powerful, stunning, and right, Kai. You are a fantastic writer. I’m glad you are not letting yourself be “disciplined” into a more jargony writing. Your writing is beautiful, powerful, professional–its own voice, its own message. I think you could publish this … “unsettle a room and ground a conversation” and “male, pale, and stale” could be in a published book and would be quoted often. keep on! It’s unconscionable that you have never had a Black woman professor. 50 years of critical race and gender theory, on intersectionality, have barely changed the academy’s racial and gender demographics. You have your finger on why that is the case, why academe is structured, on minute and general levels, to replicate itself (despite its critique and theorizing of “decolonializing” academe). I’m glad to read your response to this event with Dr. Cottom and Dr. Shedd. Take care, good luck. Against odds, you still have a powerful, brilliant, eloquent voice. I’m glad the academy has not silenced you.

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  • October 27, 2020 at 3:16 pm
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    p.s. I don’t have Dr. Cottom’s exact language but, at the end, she passed on wisdom a prof gave her: institutions are extractive. Don’t expect them to feed you, he told her. They will disappoint you. She told us: Your biggest job is to extract as much from institutions as you can without letting institutions extract from you. She is fearless and passes that wisdom on.

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  • October 27, 2020 at 4:07 pm
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    Kai, this is a remarkable post—sharp, incisive, and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your voice. As a white woman in an admin position, I acknowledge that I am complicit, and that I have a responsibility to work against the bias and harm that remain so pervasive in higher ed. I hope your mentor is a solid source of support, and you’re totally right that the burden should not fall on the shoulders of people like her—nor should they fall on you or your fellow students.

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