Daughter, sister, wife, mother, these titles are typically attributed to women. Academic, researcher, doctor, professor, scholar, these titles are typically attributed to men. African-American, Black, Black American, Colored and Negro are terms used to describe Americans in the Black (socially constructed) racial group. What though, if you identify with all of the descriptors? According to author Ntozake Shange, to be Black, a woman and an academic is a metaphysical dilemma, which is described as the reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses. This corollary suggests that Black women who are academics deviate from what is standard. Which begs the question, are Black women an anomaly in academia? If so, is it realistic for a Black woman to aspire to be an academic in America?
Dr. Janelle L. Williams
Statistics say no. According to a 2016 study released by the National Center for Education Statistics, Black women held just three percent or 45,000 of the 1.5 million faculty positions in degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Seventy-six percent of the faculty positions including professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, adjunct professors and interim professors are held by White men (41 percent) and White women (35 percent). While we cannot speak for the entire three percent of Black women in faculty positions, as Black women who identify as academics, we can confidently say that academic aspirations are, will, and should continue to be realistic. Conversely, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that such aspirations, unfortunately come with institutional racism, marginalization, misogyny, scrutiny, and vulnerability.
Understanding the dilemma set before us, informally, we are often asked – How have you managed to navigate your roles, embrace your identity, and push past the obstacles (both real and imagined)? The short answer is resilience. The long answer involves accepting hard truths and applying practical tactics. We offer what we learned along our journey to the professoriate, both as doctoral students and recent graduates, with full transparency, in hopes to help those who will also face this metaphysical dilemma:
Ayana Tyler Hardaway
As you read this, and you find that you are facing a decision to enter the academy (or leave), know that the decision is yours to make. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise or convince you to believe your goals cannot be realized because of your race and or gender. Remember the words of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who served as the associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago: “Women of color know how to get things done for our families, our communities and our country. When we use our voices, people listen. When we lead, people follow. And when we do it together, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.”
Whether you are an emerging scholar or a full professor, understand there is an enhanced responsibility for us as Black women to share our truths, share our stories, demystify the academic process, support each other, supplement and perhaps shape the experiences of Black women who are and will become academics.
Dr. Janelle L. Williams is a Visiting Scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @SincerelyDrJae. Ayana Tyler Hardaway is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Policy, Organizational, & Leadership Studies in the College of Education at Temple University. You can follow her on Twitter @AyanaHardaway