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Does Anyone See Us? Disposability of Black Women Faculty in the Academy

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Several days ago, I received a disheartening message that one of my colleagues, my sorority sister, and friend, resigned from her tenured, full professor position at my institution. I was shocked, partly because she’s been here just as long as I have, almost 20 years. I quickly did the math and realized she was about the 8th Black woman faculty member to leave my institution this year alone. The number is much higher if I think back over the past few years to include all Black intellectuals who have left my institution. These numbers are troublesome considering that Black faculty make up such a small percentage of the faculty at my institution and nationally. As I examined my list further, I realized that half of the Black women were full professors who have made extraordinary contributions to their respective fields and the life of the university through their leadership and service, and others were rising stars. I also know that many of them may have stayed if they were paid equitably, provided greater opportunities and pathways to advance their careers, and didn’t have to navigate racialized, gendered, and hostile work environments. Dr. Joy Gaston Gayles

This past year I served as the keynote speaker at a research symposium on campus. In my talk, I shared unapologetically that the academy has a problem with diversity. I’ll add here that the academy also has a problem with Misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey that illuminates the unique ways Black women experience interlocking forms of oppression, including anti-blackness (the unwillingness of people to overcome their disdain and disregard for the existence of Black people), misogyny (disregard, contempt, and prejudice against women), and racism (systemic oppression and denial of access to resources in society based on race). The fact that so many Black women can leave an institution in such a short time period and no one notices or says anything, and no visible changes are made to prevent this from happening is a clear example of misogynoir and what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls an intersectional failure. Black women routinely experience racialized, gendered, and hostile environments in society and on college campuses, as institutional policies, practices, and norms rooted in white supremacy inflict harm. I agree with Patricia Hill Collins’ argument for expanding the definition of violence relative to how it is socially constructed within power-laden relationships. Doing so illuminates how institutional policies, practices, and norms function as forms of power and are wielded to commit violence against Black women within higher education institutions. Because white norms are so ingrained in society, it’s rare for people who hold privilege and power to pause and consider how institutional policies, practices, and norms function as forms of violence and cause harm to marginalized people. Lori Patton and Nadrea Njoku name this institution-sanctioned violence and argue that colleges and universities can be some of the most oppressive sites for Black women, especially Black women who speak up and are unafraid to call out and name oppression. Not only do they make themselves vulnerable to institution-sanctioned violence, but sadly, Black women are also often blamed for institution-sanctioned violence wielded against them.

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Efforts to address diversity and equity in the academy have been in place for decades. Institutions put great effort into increasing people of color in searches and instituting diversity training. Over the last two and a half years, institutions renewed and reaffirmed their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in response to heightened injustices fueled by continued senseless state-sanctioned murders of Black and Brown bodies. Institutions have mission statements on their websites and strategic plans declaring their commitment to diversity and anti-racism. Yet, faculty remain overwhelmingly white in the academy. Moreover, institutions do not recognize and thus have failed to address misogynoir and institution-sanctioned violence in the academy. In 2019, Black faculty made up about 6.5% of tenure-track faculty nationally. The percentage of Black faculty decreases as rank increases meaning that there are even fewer Black faculty at the highest ranks of the academy. Consequently, higher percentages of Black faculty are at the lowest ranks in the academy. Black women make up slightly more than 2% of tenured professors and less than 2% of full professors in academia. So why is the academy still so white and male-dominated?

Politics of disposability, coined by Giroux, captures the trauma and pain experienced by marginalized people due to privileging neoliberal values over humanity. It represents the kind of politics in the academy that renders people as not adding value, disposable, and, simultaneously, fuels oppression. Black women endure a great deal of trauma and pain at predominantly white institutions that stem from being discredited, scrutinized, and blamed for their circumstances, all while holding innocent those who target and treat Black women as a threat. Because these behaviors happen repeatedly, receive no attention, and go unchecked, deems them as institution-sanctioned. Further, Black women faculty are not valued or compensated equitably for their labor in academia, despite feeling and succumbing to pressure to work twice as hard as their white colleagues to be considered legitimate when held up to white normative standards. White normative standards are filled with subjective language often used against and to exclude Black women when making decisions on tenure and promotion and our career advancement. We’ve seen this play out in the cases of brilliant scholars and intellectuals such as Pulitzer Prize-winning and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones and Supreme Court Justice of the United States Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s not surprising then that predominantly white institutions are a revolving door for Black women faculty. There are no policies to protect Black women faculty from the harm caused by racism, sexism, anti-blackness, bullying, and institution-sanctioned violence. Harassment policies only cover physical harm. There is no consideration or protection from psychological harm and racial battle fatigue even though we know the damage emotional stress and violence can do to our physical bodies.

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The academy remains white and steeped in whiteness because efforts to diversify the academy are performative rather than transformational. The refusal of people to do the work of raising their critical consciousness and using their decision-making power to address systemic oppression and inequities will keep the academy white. A sure-fire way to maintain white supremacy in education and society is to keep the academy white. So when we do not work to change the culture and climate and fight to keep Black women, to the same extent that we fight to keep white people, we end up perpetuating the problem we say we want to resolve. 

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I recently came across an article entitled: Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Higher Education: Love Letters to Blackness and Recommendations to Those Who Say They Love Us. It powerfully captures Black faculty, staff, and students struggles in predominantly white institutions and offers a great set of recommendations for institutional leaders to consider. I particularly appreciate the guidance for institutional leaders to engage in greater self-awareness by challenging and becoming curious about what you learned growing up about what it means to be ____ in this world and this country. What values, beliefs, practices assumptions do you hold and why? Reflexive praxis over time can lead to shifts that help people deal with their complacency, fragility, and defensiveness and allows space for creating environments that are more culturally inclusive and equitable. Further, institutions should implement policies and practices to protect Black women from bullying, inequitable treatment, misogynoir, and systemic oppression. Moreover, such policies can be a transformational solution to institution-sanctioned violence against Black women and all people in the academy.   

It isn’t easy for Black women in the academy to love institutions that do not love us back. Yet, we persist because we are committed to holding institutions accountable for realizing their full potential, which includes creating space for and bringing out the richness in research and practice that comes from diverse perspectives and forms of knowledge. I’ve seen glimpses of this potential through various possibility models inside and outside the academy. I draw critical hope from them.

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Guided by bell hooks’ definition of love, I conclude on an honest and forward-looking note. Love for my institution is not reduced to wearing paraphernalia, charitable giving, and contributing to the life of the university. “Love is a combination of care, commitment, responsibility, respect, and trust.” Writing this editorial was not easy for me but necessary. In addition to representing institutions well through our various achievements, we are responsible for holding them accountable for their expressed values and commitments. In return, institutions must do better to care for the humanity of Black women on college campuses.

 

 Dr. Joy Gaston Gales is president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and is Alumni Association Distinguished Graduate Professor and Senior Advisor for Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at North Carolina State University. 

 

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