This Is How Black Women Leaders Do Not Survive
Reading of Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation Tuesday from the Harvard presidency, the words of Audre Lorde in the poignant poem “A Litany for Survival” come to mind: “For all of us / this instant and this triumph / We were never meant to survive.”
A presidency that for many of us stood — in and outside of academia — as a symbol and actualization of the possible quickly became a demonstration of the power of forceful campaigns that coalesced against Black women leaders. Her resignation is now a reminder of the irreconcilability of successful Black womanhood with powerful, wealthy and predominantly white institutions. Even when you have all the accolades, all the knowledge, all the skills and attributes, it is hard to know the way forward. How is success achievable when the scrutiny is so vast and extensive? This is how we die, even if it may have felt for a moment that we triumphed.
The challenges of being a Black woman and woman of color academic are well documented. National statistics display severe underrepresentation of Black faculty. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that in the fall of 2021, only 6% of faculty were Black and 6% were Latino. Underrepresentation is but one problem. For those who do make it, academia proves to be a tough terrain. Women, faculty of color and first-generation faculty face grave challenges in navigating university structures that inhibit advancing to and beyond tenure, promotion and achieving overall fulfilling and “successful” careers.
In a synthesis of 252 scholarly publications on the topic of faculty of color in the academy, the authors of “Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 Years of Literature Tells Us” sum up the challenges facing faculty of color as undervaluation of their research interests, approaches and theoretical frameworks; student challenges to their credentials and intellect in the classroom; isolation/marginalization; and perceived biases in hiring processes. More recent qualitative and testimonial scholarship paints a fuller picture that faculty of color, and Black women specifically, are, as one volume aptly notes, “presumed incompetent.” During the 2020 racial justice awakening, Black academics reported exhaustion when the claims for diversity collided with their experiences, according to an Inside Higher Ed article. One leader described that institutions need to examine how “white supremacy culture is baked into the structures and practices of the campus.”
As hard as it is being a Black woman faculty, becoming and being a Black woman leader reveals the iron bars above the glass ceiling. The public view may think of an academic career path as cryptic at worst but rather comfortable. More accurately, the path is arduous and long. At every turn — through four years of undergraduate education, four to six years of master’s and doctoral work, dissertation writing and defense, getting an academic position, six plus years of tenure probationary period, tenure and promotion reviews that scrutinize every word you have said and written, and ongoing considerations for promotion, professional advancement and consideration for leadership — there are hoops to jump, points to prove, checks to cross. For underrepresented scholars, and particularly for Black women, there are also gender and racial biases to challenge. Every step of the way research shows that every single one of these steps is more pronounced and taxing for people of color.