Ain’t I a scholar? Black women & misogynoir in the academy

1st March 2021

Authors: Shamella Cromartie, Associate Dean of Hunter Library and Brandi N. Hinnant-Crawford, Associate Professor of Educational Research at Western Carolina University 

'You’re intimidating.' 
A colleague to SC

'I’m sure you’re qualified, but you have to admit being Black and a woman helped you get this job.' 
An alumnus to BNHC at a fundraising event 

'You seem angry.' 
A direct report to SC 

'I didn’t like seeing the picture of her children on her desktop background, it was distracting.'
A student evaluation comment on BNHC’s Instruction 

In the United States, the academy prides itself on its pluralistic ideals and as a public sphere where the free-flowing exchange of ideas can take place.  They tout their diverse perspectives and feature glossy photos of multi-racial learning environments on the front pages of their websites, yet faculty at institutions of higher learning are most often white men. In fact, Black women make up less than 5% of faculty (NCES, 2019). Black faculty tend to be concentrated at lower ranks (unranked, non-tenure track, or as junior faculty) (Taylor, et al., 2020). And Black women make up a small proportion of higher education’s administrative positions (6.7%) (NCES, 2019). 

The numbers of Black women within the academy are symptoms of an academic culture that continues to privilege whiteness and maleness. Black women do not walk through the halls of the ivory towers able to be women or Black – they walk in as survivors of the intersectional consequences of anti-blackness, white supremacy, and patriarchy (Dancey, et al., 2018; Hills, 2019). These forces lead to suspicion of competence by peers, supervisors, and students (Agathangelou & Ling, 2002; Hills, 2019; Wilson, 2012); lower teaching evaluations (Agathangelou & Ling, 2002; Chavez & Mitchell, 2020; Lazos, 2012); expectations to be entertaining (McGee & Kazembe, 2016); overburdened service expectations (known as the Black tax) (Hills, 2019; Ladson-Billings, 2008; Wilson, 2012); and reduced opportunities to advance (Agathangelou & Ling, 2002). In 1851, in Akron Ohio at a Women’s Rights Convention, Sojourner Truth asked infamously, 'Ain’t I a woman?' and we ask, on behalf of Black women throughout academe – Ain’t we scholars?

It is often said amongst the Black community that, 'you have to be twice as good for half as much,' and black women tend to embody that belief. Often purposefully seeking to overcompensate with exemplary productivity and credentials, Black women demonstrate their belongingness in response to the white and male gaze. Some scholars have characterised this phenomenon as 'academic mammying,' defined as behaviors and outcomes 'prompted by the burdensome levying of undue expectation (or under-expectation) on black women scholars’ performance, embodiment, and competence' (Hills, 2019, p. 9). The othering experienced by Black women becomes apparent in hiring decisions as well as promotion and tenure processes when 'hidden rules and subsidiary criteria suddenly apply' (Agathangelou & Ling, 2002, p. 370). And while search committees and tenure and promotion committees view themselves as objective and rewarding of merit, they often make decisions based on the 'culture' and 'fit,' reproducing an academic workforce that is hostile to those outside what it deemed to be the norm (Johnson, 2020). Though the academy is ostensibly inclusive and pluralistic, when hired or promoted, Black women are expected to be diversity experts while moderating their Blackness (ie: not be too black), which includes how blackness is centered within their scholarship (Ladson-Billings, 2008). 

Just like the litany of Black women who came before us, from Mary McLeod Bethune to Ruth Simmons, we are here not by accident but by necessity, by merit and not by quota. The myth of meritocracy applies most often to white men; when we walk in the room, we are usually more than qualified. We are here conducting the research that credits our foremothers and fathers’ contributions while simultaneously illuminating and dismantling structures that reproduce inequity. We are leading inclusive classrooms and ensuring we cultivate spaces that nurture critically conscious catalysts for change. And we are serving the institution, the field, and our communities as co-conspirators and not competitors. And while we are still being named 'firsts' in industries, politics, and academia, we recognise we stand on the shoulders of women whose contributions and brilliance were long ignored, in favor of elevating others that fit 'the culture' of the department or institution. 

The academy cannot afford to ignore brilliance because it is steeped in melanin. Black women have the power to advance every knowledge and practice in every field. We are the Brittney Coopers in Women and Gender Studies, the Regina Bradleys in English, the Bettina Loves and Janelle Scotts in education, and the Jamylle Carters in Mathematics. We are the Sharrelle Barbers in public health, the Crystal Sanderses and Elizabeth Todd-Brelands in history, and the Destinie Nocks and Korie Grasyons in engineering. We are the Kimberle Crenshaws and Michelle Alexanders in law and the Siobhan Day Gradys in Computer Science. And now more than ever the world cannot afford to ignore the Kizzmekia Corbetts that are capable of saving us when novel enemies attack. As we enter Women’s History Month, remember, there are women all around you with the capacity to make history, remove the barriers instead of erecting blockades. When you encounter a Black woman in your department imagine her asking you:

And ain't I a scholar? Look at me! Look at my CV! I have published and presented, and gathered data, and no man could head me! And ain't I a scholar? I could produce as much and lead as well as a man – when afforded the opportunity to do so – and change the world as well! And ain't I a scholar? 

We are obliged to you for hearing us, and now behave accordingly. 

 


References

Agathangelou, A. M., & Ling, L. H. (2002). An unten (ur) able position: The politics of teaching for women of color in the US. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 4(3), 368-398.

Chávez, K., & Mitchell, K. M. (2020). Exploring bias in student evaluations: Gender, race, and ethnicity. PS: Political Science & Politics, 53(2), 270-274.

Dancy, T. E., Edwards, K. T., & Earl Davis, J. (2018). Historically white universities and plantation politics: Anti-Blackness and higher education in the Black Lives Matter era. Urban Education, 53(2), 176-195.

Hills, D. D. W. (2019). 'Admirable or Ridiculous?': The Burdens of Black Women Scholars and Dialogue in the Work of Solidarity. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 35(2), 5-21.

Johnson, S. K. (2020). Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams. Harper Business.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2008). [email protected]: A story of black life in the academy. In S. Greene (Ed), Literacy as a Civil Right: Reclaiming social justice in literacy teaching and learning (p. 29-43). Peter Lang Press

Lazos, S. R. (2012). Are student teaching evaluations holding back women and minorities. In G. Gutiérrez y Muhs, R.F. Niemann, C. G. González, & A. P. Harris (Eds). Presumed incompetent: The intersections of race and class for women in academia (p.164-185). University of Colorado Press.
McGee, E. O., & Kazembe, L. (2016). Entertainers or education researchers? The challenges associated with presenting while black. Race Ethnicity and Education, 19(1), 96-120.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2019). Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Table 314.40. Employees in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, sex, employment status, control and level of institution, and primary occupation: Fall 2018 [dataset]. Department of Education.

Taylor, M., Turk, J.M., Chessman, H.M., & Espinosa, L.L. (2020). Race and higher education: 2020 Supplement. American Council on Education.

Wilson, S. (2012). They forgot Mammy had a brain. In G. Gutiérrez y Muhs, R.F. Niemann, C. G. González, & A. P. Harris (Eds). Presumed incompetent: The intersections of race and class for women in academia (p.65-77). University of Colorado Press.