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The Metaphysical Dilemma: Academic Black Women

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. WilliamsDr. 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 HardawayAyana Tyler Hardaway
  1. “It takes a village”: Having a strong support system was crucial to our success. Throughout our respective doctoral journeys, one of the most precious commodities was simply having time. While balancing our many roles including mother, wife, program director, student, sister, friend, we often felt like time was limited and we were spread extremely thin. There were many occasions when we needed downtime to just unplug and think, indulge in self-care (with a glass of wine) and strategize our next steps. For example, Ayana defended her dissertation proposal while being seven months pregnant, and a full time employee working 40 hours a week. It was important for her to have nights and weekends to decompress and write. In this way, having family, spouses and friends around for support, especially for childcare, are invaluable in ensuring that we had uninterrupted time to focus on our self, studies, writing and research.
  2. Relationships are strained: Life in the academy is unique and can be extremely taxing on relationships. At times, you may feel like no one truly understands the pressure you’re under, especially during the dissertation phase or meeting a manuscript deadline. Don’t fret. Instead of shutting others out, simply set realistic expectations. Be direct. Let those in your circle know about the critical juncture you’re in. Keep it simple. Everyone doesn’t need a synopsis of the epistemological position in which you identify with nor the methodological breakthrough that your research is making. Simply explain that your current program/fellowship/appointment is demanding and that you’ll be sure to reconnect once you’re able to come up for air.
  3. Work when the children sleep: New mothers always hear “Sleep when the baby sleeps” Ha! As a doctoral student, researcher or professor, one must, “Write when the baby sleeps.” Evening and night hours are ideal times to write extra paragraphs, edit manuscripts and read up on the most recent literature to edit chapters. Beyoncé said it best, “Strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.”
  4. Find “your person”: It’s stressful enough, both as a graduate student and recent graduate, having to complete coursework, navigate your way through comprehensive exams, defend your dissertation, secure a postdoctoral fellowship, engage in new research and find teaching opportunities. The demands of being a daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend exacerbates this stress. Make it a point to keep in touch with other colleagues who have similar roles and are in similar stages of their careers as you. These relationships will help you stay on track and oftentimes, having an accountability partner is a subtle reminder that you are not on this journey alone.
  5. Give yourself permission: Life as a Black woman within the academy is marked with critical junctures, milestones and feelings of loneliness and isolation. The latter may lead you to feel it necessary to assimilate with the dominate culture – don’t! Always be your authentic self. Inevitably, the trajectory of an academic will likely overlap with life events (marriage, childbirth, death of a loved one) and other unforeseen challenges and that is typical. Adversity is unavoidable but Black women have conquered living on the margins for generations. Your research matters. Your perspective matters. You are not an impostor. Keep a positive attitude and no matter what, remember that you have earned your right to be here.

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

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