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by Black Issues

Dear BI Career  Consultants:

How can people of color establish and maintain networks within predominantly White institutions without being viewed as separatists?

Dr. Diann W. McCants,
Associate Director
African and African-American Studies
Stanford University

In any job situation, it is important to consider the factors that promote success.  A healthy work environment is one that inspires confidence, provides a supportive environment and enables opportunities for continued professional growth and development.
In many predominantly White institutions, the work environment is not one that is favorable to most African Americans and other people of color. Instead, it is fraught with subtle opposition and stress, ranging from negative peer perceptions to denial of tenure or promotions. It therefore becomes necessary to develop and pursue avenues to maximize opportunities for survival and success.
Unfortunately, participation in African-American professional, social and political organizations can be perceived as being separatist to White co-workers.  There is a perceived threat to the established orthodoxy, or disdain for the “non-White” organization.
However, when we talk about separatism, we must be clear on what we really mean. One definition of a separatist is “…a person who advocates separation or withdrawal from an organization, usually political or religious, especially one who secedes.” Generally, most African Americans and other individuals of color who have chosen to work in a predominantly White institution are seeking avenues of achieving success within that particular environment. This mandates a proper understanding of the work culture and wise utilization of available resources. 
Developing networks among other people of color is one way of achieving this balance, while maintaining confidence in one’s abilities and ideas.
Communication is a key component. It is critical for each individual to know the “why” behind involvement in a particular group and to be able to coherently express that to co-workers. It must be stated that the intention is not to “secede” from the institution; rather, the networking enables additional ways to “succeed” within the institution.


Dr. Nell Irwin Painter
Professor, American History and
Director, African American Studies Program
Princeton University

I think the most interesting way is to create networks around subject matter rather than the people you want to meet. For instance, if you are interested in African-American History, or African-American Studies, or race and health or whatever you do, you’re more likely to reach African-American people. And you would also find some non-Black allies. I think that’s really important. It also gives you an intellectual mission, which any university in its right mind would foster.
What we do here in our African-American studies program is hold little conferences. In December, we had a conference on race and beauty which brought together about 200 people — mostly Black women, but not overwhelmingly so. And I think the Black people in the audience felt they had a chance to talk about the things that were on their minds. 
In May, we’re having a race and health conference. We have works in progress throughout the year and we have a holiday party and a barbecue. But aside from the parties, there is always an intellectual backbone, which serves as the rationale for bringing people together to discuss whatever they want.
The problem with organizing around race as a people is that you might get all kinds of people who are not interested in the subject matter. I think that subject matter is a stronger hook. We also have a mid-Atlantic African-American group for graduate students, which we run out of the program here at Princeton.
What you say is: ‘We are bringing people together who are interested in African-American studies.’ What you get is 99 percent people who are of African-American descent and they feel free to talk about the issues that are on their minds.
The days of Black faculty caucuses seems to be waning. In the ’70s, we saw a lot of that, but not so much today. We do not have a Black faculty caucus at Princeton. We have people around African-American studies in the form of a committee of people from various departments, and right now all those people are Black. It hasn’t always been all Black, but has always been majority Black.
Generally, scholars and heads of African-American studies programs are activists and are a self-selected group concerned with making a home. My concern is less with people sitting around licking their wounds and more about the field of African-American studies and making sure it remains intellectually vital.             

— Compiled by Joan Morgan



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