Women of Color in the Academy
A Series by Diversity Public Scholars
The experiences of women of color in our society are often invisible. In social, political, and academic discussions, in policy, and in research — both inside and outside of the academy — the term “women and minorities” is regularly used in ways that ignore the overlaps between the two. Such framing implicitly contributes to a conception of womanhood that excludes women of color and a conception of race based in experiences of maleness. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal work on intersectionality, based in the area of legal studies, responds to this type of erasure, critiquing traditional feminist and antiracist theories that have historically neglected the experiences of Black women, and highlighting how multiple forms of social stratification — including race, gender, and social class, among others — influence their life experiences. In the legal context for example, discrimination cases brought by Black women imposed the burden of defining and demonstrating the discrimination as based on race or gender, but not as both. More recently, movements such as #SayHerName and books such as Invisible No More have aimed to bring awareness to the experiences of Black women and police brutality, challenging the perception that anti-Black violence and its victims are predominantly male. Building from her foundational work, Crenshaw and scholars from multiple disciplines have extended and applied the concept of intersectionality to highlight other intersecting identity groups, including the complex stories and lives of women with historically marginalized racial and ethnic identities who are navigating academic contexts and structures.
Within the academy, women of color continue to be underrepresented. Despite efforts to open access in higher education, barriers continue to exist. As scholar Laura I. Rendon shares, “Most students like me enter higher education through its windows, only to find that all around us are walls that keep us secluded and marginalized.” Indeed, Rendon’s story is reflected in research documenting the marginalization experienced by many women of color in academia, particularly those seeking to build a career as faculty. The research highlights structural, social, and interpersonal processes that may affect women of color in different ways. Social location matters — that is, many women of color in doctoral education are the first in their families to attend graduate school, and some grapple with distance from their families and consequential isolation. Regardless of family and socioeconomic background, women of color in predominantly White PhD programs may have experiences of both hypervisibility and invisibility in their day-to-day academic environments due to their racial and gender group memberships, leading them to feel misunderstood and excluded from spaces and opportunities open and available to peers that are men or white women. Socialization norms and practices within academic disciplines matter, as they reflect values and reward systems around who belongs in the discipline, as well as legitimate sources of knowledge and privileged forms of knowledge production. Curriculum and training norms are often based in traditionally white masculine cultures, encouraging an individualistic or competitive culture that can conflict with those holding values of collective advancement.
Those who choose to enter faculty positions can face similar challenges. In the classroom, women of color (particularly younger women of color) report more questioning of their competence and overt racist and sexist experiences compared to other faculty, especially those teaching white students. While faculty are most heavily evaluated based on their publication productivity and teaching excellence, women of color faculty are disproportionately called upon to take on extra service less privileged and rewarded in faculty evaluations, including “care work,” or supporting students who may be struggling with personal life circumstances. Patti Duncan describes how women of color are often relegated as the “fixers” of diversity issues and as “hot commodities” in an academic marketplace, while at the same time experiencing “epistemological violence,” or the dismissal of their pedagogical instruction, research practices, and scholarly production.
These serious challenges and barriers may derail or disrupt the doctoral and faculty aspirations and attainment of some women of color, while others persist, resist, and thrive. How do they do it? Research also provides some important insights. As they enter and proceed through academia, many women of color bring with them personal and cultural assets and values that help them to develop coping strategies, to redefine their experiences by constructing views of their own identities as aligned with success in their discipline, and to become advocates for others. While acknowledging the strengths of women of color is important — especially in societal contexts that tend to frame them as deficient — the responsibility for supporting their success should not only be on them. Research highlights the importance of institutional supports and resources such as: recruitment efforts to achieve critical masses of women of color in graduate and faculty roles, quality mentorship, and creating counterspaces and support groups. As such, higher education institutions should be responsible and accountable for understanding the experiences and needs of women of color scholars (in all of their diversity) and providing the types of resources and supports that leverage their strengths and address their needs in high quality and effective ways. A more challenging, but I think most necessary, charge to institutions is to include women of color in shaping and re-shaping academy and disciplinary cultures, norms, and policies such that they recognize and reward the critical contributions of women of color to our campuses — in scholarship, teaching and mentoring, and service and engagement.
This essay series was inspired by two scholars who are women of color, Lorena Gutiérrez (University of California, Riverside) and Sakeena Everett (University of Georgia). They frame this series by sharing a personal letter to doctoral women of color. Following, diversity scholars weigh in to provide their perspectives on the experiences of women of color in the academy.