Women of Color Resisting Hegemony in the Academy
An interview with Manya C. Whitaker and Eric A. Grollman
Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability and Resistance demonstrates how to build collective co-created spaces for “speaking up, speaking against, calling out and calling in”, to make visible the experiences and voices of women of color in academia, and the struggle for infrastructures of inclusion and justice at the university and beyond. In the spirit of comadrazgo — “the alternative formation of kinship that characterizes a deep support of other women” — the collection creates a space to celebrate women’s humanity, integrity, joy, tenderness, “heart work”, authenticity, fear, bravery, success, failure and compassion as central components of teaching, writing, research and activism, and against the neoliberal university . It also demonstrates the importance of institutional memory as a way to support, elevate and amplify the work and practice of women of color in academia (and beyond). It is deeply moving and inspiring, and even though it hurts to read many of these testimonios and understand the deeply entrenched structures of oppression that they respond to, each woman provides motivation and practical tools to continue the fight for justice, every day. Alexandra Délano Alonso and Marianna Poyares interviewed the editors of Counternarratives, Manya C. Whitaker and Eric A. Grollman.
Alexandra Délano Alonso & Marianna Poyares [ADA & MP]: In the introduction to the book you mention that out of more than 350 paper submissions you received following the call for contributions to this volume, the great majority focused on trauma, despite the clear request for narratives of resilience. This seems indicative of an urgent need for spaces of healing and community in academia for women of color. How does the book’s focus on resilience, courage, bravery, and thriving respond to this reality?
Manya C. Whitaker [MCW]: Counternarratives is about the successes of women of color in the academy – women who, too often, are painted as victims of oppression and marginalization. Of course, such oppression and marginalization occur but we wanted to clarify that within that narrative, and despite the obstacles we experience on a daily basis, women of color can and do thrive in academia.
My co-editor and I felt so strongly about shifting the discourse away from one of mere survival to thrival that we overestimated our contributors’ preparedness to have that conversation. For some, their journeys towards thrival were ongoing, so they were understandably unable to articulate their achievements at that moment. For others, they’d been working so steadfastly to accomplish their goals that they never paused and reflected on the fact that they are resilient, innovative, and courageous. So many women of color told us that they’d never considered themselves brave because they were just doing “what they had to do” (to survive personally and professionally). Such responses signaled to us, as editors, that it is our responsibility to help our contributors view themselves in a new, yet accurate, light.
Toward that end, we averaged about 4 rounds of feedback for each chapter to ensure that they positioned their struggles as background, and focused more on why they persevered, what they did to persevere, and how they felt doing so. Each chapter is either inspirational in nature or offers very specific strategies to succeed. Following that framework, the book ends with an afterword by Dr. Archana Pathak, who offers readers advice for how to continue these positive conversations about women of color academics. But what we love most about the afterword are the specific strategies that Dr. Pathak offers for enacting change in the academy to better support women of color scholars and students.
ADA & MP: There are very concrete recommendations by many of the authors regarding how to challenge exclusionary, oppressive and discriminatory practices within academic structures – misogyny, racism, classism, sexual harassment, tokenism – and how to transform them. Beyond the impact of these testimonials for other women of color in academia, as a tool for mentorship and support, do you envision this book having practical resonances in academic spaces, and if so, how? And, do these practices of advancing equity and racial justice transformations resonate beyond academic spaces in other institutional structures? Beyond the United States?
MCW: We absolutely hope that readers will heed the advice and extend it beyond academic spaces. There are implications for policy changes, particularly those related to faculty recruitment, retention, and professional development. Some chapters speak to the need for more robust procedures for sexual harassment concerns, supporting undocumented graduate students, and for ensuring grad students and faculty who choose to become parents are not discriminated against. None of these concerns are unique to academia, nor to the United States. Our authors’ advice is relevant to any person in a leadership position in their respective industry.
Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: To echo my co-editor, Dr. Whitaker, we hope that the book offers a roadmap for women of color academics to pursue multiple career paths — whether that be as tenure-track faculty, in administration, or leaving the academy. Our contributors go beyond simply telling their stories of defining success on their own terms with the hopes of inspiring others to lay out the necessary steps to do so (in spite of multiple, intersecting systems of oppression). These strategies include developing a robust race- and gender-conscious professional network, expanding one’s definition of mentorship, starting one’s own non-profit, and using one’s academic position to advance diversity and inclusivity initiatives.
ADA & MP: The book includes essays by deans, department chairs, tenured professors, tenure-track professors, adjunct professors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students at a range of institutions in the U.S. — from community colleges and liberal arts colleges, from public to Ivy League universities — as well as activists, artists, and independent researchers who have chosen to leave academia. How do you think this combination of voices can impact women of color in various positions and stages within academia, but also the next generation of graduate students, given the specific challenges they face?
MWC: It was important to us to represent as wide a breadth of experiences and career stages as possible. We did this because we wanted every reader to have the opportunity to connect with, and learn from, at least one of our contributors. Too often, conversations about success in the academy are centered on pre-tenure faculty, when in fact, there are obstacles at every stage of an academic career. By featuring women of color from across disciplines, career stages, and cultural backgrounds, we want to showcase the full landscape of possible paths to success in the academy.
EAG: I firmly believe that there is no one way to be an academic. And, that is reflected in our contributors’ narratives. Through the anthology, we highlight the ways in which women of color academics embrace the Black feminist principle of self-definition; they commit to defining what it means to be a successful academic on their own terms. They show that there are multiple paths one can take to advance new knowledge and advance one’s communities. Women of color grad students need not feel that they must follow the traditional path (i.e., tenure-track faculty), particularly as such jobs are becoming increasingly rare.
ADA & MP: The second part of your volume presents narratives of collective resistance and how they challenge the dominant self-proclaimed standardized ethos of academia: individualism and meritocracy. In fact, what such accounts seem to reveal is that both — individualism and meritocracy — are nothing but a facade that seeks to, first, make deeply-rooted social and economic privileges invisible and, second, to dissimulate this web of social relations by foregrounding the individual level, creating a sense of individual achievement. Collective resistance, then, comes forward as a practice of making the invisible visible again, refusing the narrative of mere individual achievement, and sustaining counter-hegemonic collective networks of support, mentorship, community and culture. Most accounts provide examples of activism (within or outside the classroom) as academic collective resistance. Could you expand on this intrinsically political nature of collective resistance in academia, and how it connects to scholar-activism?
EAG: The motto of the Black women’s club movement (late 19th century) — “lifting as we climb” — is an excellent reflection of the long history of Black women’s activism in the US. To effectively work toward uplifting one’s community, one must work alongside others in the community, as there is strength in numbers and synergy from complementary skill sets. Sadly, Black women’s contributions in the form of support or other “feminine” tasks are generally forgotten in our collective memories of Black social movements, while we fondly remember the names of Black cishet men who serve as the public faces of entire movements. Thus, even the dominant conception of activism is fundamentally individualistic and masculinist. So, too, is the dominant image of bravery.
To actively collaborate with others in resisting the academic and broader societal status quo is inherently radical in that one’s goals are not intended to lengthen one’s CV or enhance one’s (or one’s institution’s) status. This is especially true for women of color who collaborate across “power lines,” like one of our contributors, Dr. Janelle Silva, who wrote about partnering with her students to organize for a diversity center on campus. There is an unspoken (or maybe even spoken) admission that one is not the omnipotent expert, and could actually benefit from partnering with others to challenge oppressive norms and institutionalized bias. The emphasis on individualism is (perhaps intentionally) one way in which academia undermines collaboration and prevents meaningful organizing among faculty and especially between faculty and students.
ADA & MP: The collection has an explicit goal of shifting the narrative away from victimization to empowerment, self-definition and self-growth. In that sense it is powerful to center vulnerability within the third section of the book, and the exposure of intimate parts of oneself — our tears, our pregnancies, our children, our families, our bodies, our culture — as a practice of resistance against middle- and upper-class white masculinist norms of professionalism in US higher education. How does centering vulnerability move from empathy and voice through humanity to personal and collective empowerment?
MWC: Too often, we put our personal selves on the back burner, especially as women of color. We are taught to be strong, independent, and to put our families and communities before ourselves. This means hiding our emotions, especially our sadness and hurt. It means always being aware of how others perceive and receive our emotions — so much so that we prioritize their comfort over our own. The last third of our book is about exposing our emotions as a way to reclaim our humanity. And, most of all, forcing other people to recognize our humanity.
EAG: And, I’d add that the dominant image of a professor is that of a middle-class non-Latinx white cishet man currently without disabilities who is a detached expert. He does not become emotional, for emotions are seen as contradictory to “objective” science. Indeed, objectivity is synonymous with being in such a privileged position, for marginalized scholars’ competence is questioned and motivations for research (especially work on marginalized communities) are suspect. The academic emphases on professionalism, stoicism, and objectivity are merely veils for actively policing the boundaries of what is legitimate scholarship and who is respected as a scholar.
To be vulnerable, then, is to intentionally defy these norms. Vulnerability — which is inherently brave — entails allowing yourself to be, as you are, rather than attempting to perform in normative ways. It is one way in which marginalized individuals can commit to authenticity. In the case of our contributors, when they prioritize addressing their needs – whether it be factoring in the needs of one’s nursing infant into a campus visit (Patricia Herrera), or crying during a challenging meeting with an advisor (Kelsey M. Jones) – they intentionally disrupt the taken-for-granted norms of the academy that demand they essentially be stoic white cishet men. They demand their humanity be recognized, for we are humans before we are academics or any other role.
Alexandra Délano Alonso is Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at The New School. She is a Mexican born and raised woman, mother, aunt, daughter, sister, comadre and friend whose experience living between two worlds –the U.S. and Mexico—and her mixed origins as the granddaughter of immigrants have deeply shaped her research, teaching, mentoring, university service and activism on issues related to migration, borders, transnationalism, memory, and social justice.
Marianna Poyares is a PhD Student in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she grew up in a in a predominantly female household supported by networks of sisterhood. As an international student and an immigrant in the US, experiencing tokenization and calumny has not only influenced her own graduate research regarding borders, citizenship and the constitution of social membership. It has also made her passionate about scholar-activism, teaching and mentoring younger generations.
Manya C. Whitaker is Associate Professor of Education, Colorado College. Dr. Whitaker (she/her/hers) is a third-generation teacher who is proud to uphold the ethos of “lifting as we climb” in the Black community. To combat the depth of educational inequality within communities of color, she started an educational consulting business (Blueprint Educational Strategies) to provide income-based academic counseling to families, as well as teacher workshops for urban schools. Although she no longer maintains her blog on diversity and equity in education (theotherclass.wordpress.com), she continues her conversation about educational equity in her scholarship and community service.
Eric Anthony Grollman is Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Richmond . Dr. Grollman (they/them/theirs) comes from a family with a long legacy of Black women organizing for racial and gender justice. An intellectual activist, Eric has committed to using their scholarship, teaching, and mentorship, and service as vehicles for social justice. Fresh out of the traumatic experience that was graduate school, they launched a blog for marginalized scholars — ConditionallyAccepted.com — which was later picked up as a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed , eventually becoming a national platform for those on the margins of academia. They launched Sociologists for Trans Justice, which aims to advance the project of transgender liberation in and through sociology.