Black Women Faculty at HBCUs – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by an author who prefers to remain anonymous. She is a tenured professor at a public HBCU.

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You may think the HBCU represents a bit of a panacea for Black faculty at predominately White institutions. As a Black faculty member at an HBCU, I do not have to deal with the racial bias and microaggressions that my Black colleagues at PWIs (predominately White institutions) may confront regularly.  This is a privilege that I don’t take for granted. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I would love to work at an HBCU” among Black faculty in my professional circles. The perception is that I have it easier. In regards to race relations, I probably do have it easier. But, in regards to gender relations, I probably don’t have it easier.  Like many HBCUs, the faculty at my institution is racially diverse. I have wonderful colleagues who happen to be White. However, I know that the student complaints, lack of productivity, and lack of service that is tolerated from my some of my White colleagues would never be tolerated of me. 

Straight Black men are the White people of Black people.” This is the provocative title of a blog on the popular site Very Smart Brothas. The title also describes Black men in relation to HBCUs.  Straight Black men are the White people of HBCUs. To understand the experiences of Black women faculty at HBCUs is to observe the experiences of Black men. Prior to the civil rights movement, the HBCU represented one of few organizations where a Black man could ascend to an executive leadership position.  Though we’ve had a Black male president of the United States and Black men and women lead Fortune 500 companies as well as some of the most prestigious PWIs, HBCU culture still says “The Black man is endangered. Let’s help him be successful here because society will discriminate against him.”

Black women are expected to place feminism and gender equality aside in order to further and uplift the race.  Like the mules referenced in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God , we are expected to pull our academic workload, along with more than our share of service and advising, while remaining collegial and ensuring there are refreshments available for faculty meetings.  Black women faculty are the mules of HBCUs, working from the bottom and bearing the weight of the challenges encumbering these institutions. I understand that women at PWIs are enduring a similar struggle with inequitable expectations of teaching, research and service.  However, I do not see these same expectations of White women faculty at HBCUs. 

At Spelman College, the prestigious women’s HBCU, the first presidents were White women.  Historically, it was common for HBCUs to be led by White presidents. The first Black president of Spelman College was a man, Albert Manley.  Spelman would go on to appoint a second Black male president before the first Black woman president, Johnetta B. Cole, was appointed in 1987. I do not know the circumstances surrounding the hire of Spelman’s presidents.  If a woman was preferred for the first Black presidential hire at Spelman, perhaps a qualified Black woman was not available. I assume this was the case. The alternate assumption is that a Black male was preferred to a Black female.  Spelman currently has a male as their Vice President of Student Affairs, a position typically responsible for student life and extracurricular engagement. Would Morehouse, the all-male HBCU adjacent to Spelman’s campus, hire a woman in the equivalent position?  Perhaps. Culturally, it’s acceptable for men to supervise women in a way that a woman would not be allowed to supervise men. I use Spelman as an example of the subjugation of Black women in the HBCU environment.  

I doubt my colleagues at PWIs consider the gender bias I confront not just as a woman but as a Black woman.  The predominately Black environment of an HBCU only amplifies problematic gender dynamics for Black women faculty.  We are not just women, we are Black women. We are at the bottom of the race/gender hierarchy. While HBCUs may offer students a nurturing experience like what was portrayed on the popular sitcom “A Different World,” for Black women, HBCUs are the same world in regards to gender dynamics.  Gender bias and microaggressions exist on HBCU campuses just as they do at PWIs.  

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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