This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Chonika Coleman-King is an assistant professor of teachers, schools, and society at the University of Florida.
Gloshanda Lawyer is an assistant professor of deaf studies and deaf education at Lamar University.
Enkeshi El-Amin is a lecturer of sociology at University of Tennessee.
In this paper, we share the narratives of three Black women during our time at a historically white institution (HWI) situated in the conservative U.S. South. We document the prior experiences of doctoral students (who worked alongside an assistant professor) across diverse disciplines. In part, we became acquainted with one another due to our respective experiences with racism, isolation, and struggles to maintain a healthy sense of self and career and academic success amidst a persistently toxic social, academic, and work environment. We frame our experiences within the bodies out of place literature that purports that bodies like ours—Black and woman—are seen as out of place in historically white contexts that once legally excluded Black people and women, and still, these institutions struggle to integrate multiply minoritized groups into their student body, faculty, and staff. In framing our reflective essay, we also share a framework we developed for the purpose of identifying the kinds of oppression we experience within the academy.
Bodies Out of Place
Despite claims of civil rights advancements and related policy changes, institutions that have been historically exclusive—only allowing full participation to particular groups of people—continue to oppress and marginalize those whose exclusion was once legally sanctioned. According to Puwar (2004), this historical legacy has led to individuals with certain physical traits signifying bodies out of place (BOP). Puwar further asserts that positions of privilege have been reserved for certain bodies and those who constitute different kinds of bodies are subject to hyper-surveillance and scrutiny of their every gesture, movement, and utterance. Due to the perceived inappropriateness of bodies out of place, individuals like Black women are often subject to regular racial and gendered microaggressions and various forms of institutional oppression (Joseph-Salisbury 2019).
In furthering the work of Puwar, Combs (2017) expounds upon the relationship between intersectionality—the ways in which multiple minoritized identities work together to create unique experiences of oppression—and the ways in which micro-level experiences with oppression sustain macro-level oppression. Combs views BOP as a useful means of interrogating the role of space, place, and context in experiences with oppression—issues that are not readily taken up by frameworks like critical race theory (CRT). BOP is instructive as it helps us to reflect on the experiences we faced as Black women specifically within the context of an HWI in the conservative South that was built for white men in the 1790s, and only first admitted (but did not successfully matriculate) several Black men until almost 250 years later, beginning in the early 1950s.
Irreducible and Reducible Oppressions
Collins (2000) was one of the first to discuss the implications of the exclusion of Black women from socially and politically acceptable knowledge production communities. Dotson (2014) argued that epistemic oppression is often a result of macro-level social and political oppression or reducible oppression. However, Black women’s exclusion is also a function of oppression contextualized within epistemological systems like higher education institutions; Dotson (2014) refers to this as irreducible oppression. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on irreducible oppression, which may include, but is not limited to: epistemological colonization (e.g., allowing Black women’s work to be co-opted by white colleagues), and resistance to promoting Black women employees. Identity markers such as social class, language, etc., particularly in the southern region of the United States, are also factors that influence the types of oppression Black women faculty and students face at HWIs. Additionally, Black women are perceived to exist and embody ways of knowing and practices that reside outside of those deemed acceptable by the institution; thus, presenting a challenge to the norms and practices of the academic community.
Black Women’s Experiences with Irreducible Oppressions
Table 1 provides a prescriptive, yet non-exhaustive list of the kinds of irreducible oppression we experienced as Black women faculty and graduate students in academia. Through this list, it is our goal to contextualize our gendered racial experiences as Black women and describe how they manifested in this specific academic context. Though reducible oppressions are equally important to address, we often found in the creation of the list provided in Table 1 that reducible oppressions were not often distinct from irreducible oppressions in academic spaces. Additionally, the experiences of Black women graduate students, though in the context of different departments, appeared to be precursors to the types of experiences that Black women faculty face once employed in academia. According to the BOP framework, the experiences below describe the “opposer’s” obligatory response to Black women being perceived as stepping out of their social and intellectual “places” in the academy.
Table 1. Black women faculty and graduate students’ experiences with irreducible oppression
Counternarratives of Bodies Out of Place
Below, we use counter-storytelling in the form of personal narratives to explore our experiences as Black women in the academy and demonstrate our experiences with irreducible oppression. Counter-storytelling honors the narratives of minoritized groups and counters white-washed mainstream narratives of minoritized groups’ experiences (Solórzano & Yosso 2002). Storytelling is upheld as political and not without social implications; storytelling, in fact, is the mechanism that contextualizes social structures by connecting past, present, and future (Dunbar 2008). We use storytelling across three personal narratives to “talk back” to the dominant narratives that have silenced Black women, minimized our experiences, or left our experiences in academia completely unaddressed.
The Only One
Coming from a background in Black studies, while completing my master’s program, I was advised by one of my mentors and friends to pursue doctoral studies in a more “traditional” field. She believed that it would be a better option for me as I looked forward to a career in academia. I took her advice and enrolled in a social science program two years later. After my orientation to the discipline, I felt I had made the right decision as the types of questions that intrigued me and the research that I was interested in were sociological in nature. Nevertheless, I found myself frustrated with the field and unsure about how to name and express what I was experiencing. Despite feeling like I made the right choice, during my course work, I often felt alienated and disconnected from the material and course content. I constantly found myself struggling to engage the material as it was glaringly white and male centered. Furthermore, as the only Black female student in my predominantly white department, I did not feel as if many understood what I was experiencing, rather I felt as if, with a few exceptions, the times I attempted to address my concerns, they were either dismissed as just routine grad student complaining or entertained in a very patronizing manner.
During one social theory course in particular, I remember asking myself out loud, “Do Black people theorize?” In hindsight, this was a strange experience for someone who had completed an undergraduate and master’s degree in Black studies and had engaged with numerous Back scholars and theorists. I was so inundated with material that excluded Black voices, and especially Black women’s voices, I began to doubt whether they even existed. A turning point for me came in my reintroduction to Patricia Hill Collins’s Black feminist epistemology. Collins was a sociologist and she not only knew my experience but articulated it. I remember reading Collins’s work, which I knew I had read before but, in my new context, I understood it in such a new way. As I read her words, I often had to hold back tears because I was so overwhelmed by being seen and heard. What was transformative about this experience is that it allowed me to speak out and re-engage in a class where I had begun to sink. I now have the language to challenge the content that alienated me. But because my experiences were also validated by a well-respected sociologist, I left this experience feeling emboldened. This was the beginning of finding my voice in academia, redefining my understanding of social theory, and committing to own and transform the discipline.
Testimonial quieting largely shaped my experiences as a graduate student. In many instances, this was prompted by the lack of intentionality of professors in including diverse perspectives in their courses. This vacuous gap led me to also suppress my own voice and reconsider my place and other Black people’s place in the academy and as creators of knowledge. For me, a BOP not only meant that my physical presence was an anomaly, but also my epistemic presence and the presence of Black women who came before me.
Another day of walking across campus. After ten minutes of being forced off the campus sidewalks by white students and faculty, to whom I continue to remain unnoticed, I finally arrive to the classroom. I was a second-year doctoral student; but after serving as a teaching assistant (TA) for three courses in my first year, I didn’t feel new to this teaching thing. Yet year two was different; I was realizing that without the shield of being a pregnant doctoral student, I was a “displaced” Black woman. And to be a Black woman, stepping out of my social place, here, was not good. As a pregnant graduate teaching assistant (GTA), my students exuded a sense of security with me. It was often that I received student requests for office hours or visits to my apartment for assistance with their work. These visits would turn into long hours of talking about their life; current stressors and successes; and statements of gratitude for the levels of support, understanding, and overall warmness I offered them which they found to be a stark contrast to the white professors they had experienced in the past. However, in year two, though some of these students had remained the same, everything had changed.
There is something to be said when this binary of having my presence ignored and being too present is imposed on you. Every instance in which I’ve “showed up” as a Black woman on campus had resulted in the reification of my (imposed) inferior social position. This message had been communicated in my teaching role by [all white, female] students who enjoyed me as the TA for their class, with no power to grade, no power to create knowledge. Then, serving as the “professor of record” the following semester, the same students who had never expressed having any challenges with the course, had been writing letters and calling for meetings to complain to institutional supervisors and administrators. The following comments were shared by students: “I strongly believe there needs to be some intervening from a higher authority…I have never received a grade lower than a B in my entire college career [with all white professors].”
“I am very concerned about this unethical and inaccurate form of instruction [a]ffecting me greatly.” Additionally, another student’s coded request for my removal stated: “I am hoping there is something that can be done to rectify the situation.”
In response to my approaches in the classroom, my immediate superior stated that if many students are complaining, maybe there is something I should try to take from what they are saying. To which I responded, “How can it be that the exact same group of students had no problems with my methods and pedagogy just one semester prior when I was the lesser of two evils and all the final grades were decided by the professor that I served under as a TA? Yet this semester, the one change is that I am grading their work?” These students were calling for me to be fired from a position for which I was not being paid. As an unpaid GTA, I had no material benefit from teaching this course. In reflecting on this experience, I wondered what would happen if I had to rely on this course as a significant source of income? What if my ability to provide for my child rested on teaching this course and the other work I did in the department also without pay? These students had no concern for the impact of their actions on me. The goal was to have me removed at whatever cost to me.
The result was my physical removal from the course—removed, with the expectation that I would continue to produce content for the course. I was allowed to produce knowledge, so long as my Black-womanness remained unobservable. I was able to watch as white students accepted my work when presented by a white face. Meanwhile, I also witnessed how my work changed when it was being taught in a “white” way, losing the experiential richness that I organically brought to my work. My experiences are examples of epistemological colonization (e.g., course content), testimonial quieting (e.g., responses to my perception of the problems), negative teaching evaluations, and disparities in pay and support.
Conclusions and Implications
We have relied on our narrative reflections to help create typologies for the kinds of oppression Black women face in the academy as representatives of BOP. As we continue to build on these typologies and share stories of how people with BOP in the academy are treated, we can help those who have long held positions of power and privilege in the academy to understand and address the experiences of Black women and other minoritized groups. Table 1 can help serve as a reference tool for evaluating the behaviors of white faculty, staff, and students and possibly lead to healthier means of problem solving.
It is highly unlikely that Black women’s bodies and presence will be seen as belonging at places like certain HWIs. However, we can help people recognize when and how oppression affects multiply minoritized groups like Black women. It is our hope that identifying these patterns can change the course of interactions as they arise.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.
Combs, Barbara Harris. “No Rest for the Weary: The Weight of Race, Gender, and Place Inside and Outside a Southern Classroom.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 3, no. 4 (2017): 1-15. doi:10.1177/2332649216680101.
Dotson, Kristie. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.” Social Epistemology 28, no. 2 (2014): 115-138. doi:10.1080/02691728.2013.782585
Dunbar, Christopher. “Critical Race Theory and Indigenous Methodologies.” In Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, edited by N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, and L. T. Smith, 85-99. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2008.
Joseph-Salisbury, Remi. “Institutionalised Whiteness, Racial Microaggressions and Black Bodies Out of Place in Higher Education.” Whiteness and Education 4, no. 1 (2019): 1-17.
Puwar, Nirmal. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. New York: Berg, 2004.
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