Professor Uvanney Maylor is Director of the Institute for Research in Education at the University of Bedfordshire. Her research interests include issues of ‘race’, ethnicity, racism and culture as they impact on educational practice and Black and minority ethnic student and staff experience, and identities.
Dr Showunmi is based at the Institute of Education, University of London in the department of Lifelong, Comparative, Education. She contributes to the MA and Doctorate programmes which include teaching feminist and race theory within the context of research methods. Research interests are: teacher education, leadership, gender, identity and race.
This reflective paper through the narrative process of self enquiry examines the relevance of the theoretical frameworks, Critical Race Theory, Whiteness studies and intersectionality, in comprehending Black women’s academic experiences in UK higher education. These insights are developed via a number of critical incidents two Black women encounter in moving from junior to senior positions. The women’s reflections on these incidents reveal the ways in which Black female academics are perceived by Black and White staff, and how these perceptions were in turn interpreted and internalized by the discussants. The women’s struggles in coming to terms with each other’s Black identity constructions are documented, and they identify the need to further theorise Black female academic experiences.
Introduction This reflective paper through the narrative process of self enquiry (Chase 2010; Johns 2010) aims to interrogate the academic experiences of two Black women working in UK higher education (HE) and how they construct their ‘Black’ identities. The paper stems from frustrations/disagreements we experienced in interpreting and trying to account for each others HE experiences and Black identity constructions. In developing this paper, we engaged in a series of conversations (over the course of a year) in which we focused on the ways in which our differing discourses about being ‘Black’ either connected or jarred as we grappled with the need to tell our stories about being Black women academics in the UK. Our differing discourses also led to a search for theoretical frameworks within which we both felt comfortable to situate our HE experiences.
The paper is framed around a series of critical incidents we encountered whilst moving from being junior to senior academics. The incidents/experiences we highlight were chosen because of the personal hurt we each felt when they were experienced and the subsequent challenges they posed to us in progressing our academic careers. Using our voices in this way we aim to avoid, as Nzegwu (2003,104) argues, ‘misrepresentation’ by others. Nzegwu states that our ‘voice … anger [and] pain are cognitive acts that must be systematically conveyed; they cannot be captured by someone else, lest they be erased’ (ibid). We interrogate constructions of ‘Whiteness’ and ‘Blackness’ as part of trying to understand our experiences. In this endeavour we use the theoretical frameworks of Critical Race Theory (CRT), Whiteness studies and intersectionality, in part to articulate our experiences within the context of being Black female academics, and within this constructions of ‘Blackness’ and ‘Whiteness’ as they applied/are applied to our identities/experiences. We bring to the forefront experiences (namely gender and class) that often get overlooked when the focus is on ‘race’ and which we contend, despite CRT’s specific focus on the intersectionality of Black identities, CRT cannot fully explain – in particular - Black experiences operating within a White middle class frame.
Utilising CRT, our experiences are presented as counter narratives with counter interpretations (this is discussed further in the CRT section below). These counter stories are essential because as Black feminists we consider it important to develop new insights about Black women’s multiple, varied and differing experiences/identities by exploring how we rationalise critical incidents in our academic journeys. The intention in presenting our different stories/interpretations is not to privilege one Black female story/voice over another, but to highlight the need to explore a range of strategies to further theorize the Black female academic experience. The paper is also concerned to understand how CRT, Whiteness Studies and the concept of intersectionality can come together as tools to scrutinise the experiences of Black female academics.
Theoretical frameworks used to analyse experiences The theoretical frameworks of CRT, Whiteness Studies and intersectionality are drawn on to explore and better understand our experiences as Black female academics working in HE.
Critical Race Theory CRT developed from legal studies (Delgado, 1995) and is more commonly applied within the USA (though increasingly evident in the UK, e.g. Gillborn 2008, Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education special issue 2012). CRT starts from the premise that race and racism are endemic in society and both are considered to intersect with other forms of oppression based on gender, class, sexuality, language, culture etc. (Delgado 1995; Ladson-Billings 1998). One of the central tenets of CRT is the recognition of the experiential knowledge and voice (narratives) of People of Color. Dixson and Rousseau (2005) assert that the personal and community experience of People of Color should be acknowledged as important sources of knowledge. Calmore (1995, 321) describes CRT as tending:
…toward a very personal expression that allows our experiences and lessons, learned as People of Color, to convey the knowledge we possess in a way that is empowering to us, and, it is hoped, ultimately empowering to those on whose behalf we act.
By providing ‘counter stories’ CRT challenges ‘majoritarian [White] stories [that] are not often questioned because people do not see them as stories but as ‘natural’ parts of everyday life’ (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 28). Added to this, they serve to critique dominant White ideologies and White privilege/supremacy -‘a system of opportunities and benefits conferred upon people simply because they are White’ (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 27). By creating new knowledge counter stories serve to challenge taken for granted norms (Ladson-Billings and Donnor, 2005), and at the same time, help us to rethink the ‘traditional notion of what counts as [valid] knowledge’ (Delgado Bernal 2002, 109). Castro-Salazar and Bagley (2010, 34) observed that CRT ‘help[s] the oppressed to create their own shared memory and history which can then be used as a source of strength as they work within a system dominated by a narrative that excludes and minimises their existence’. CRT therefore seeks to be empowering and is committed to achieving social justice for People of Color.
CRT scholars utilize personal narratives/stories as appropriate forms to provide evidence and challenge the ‘number only’ approach to the documentation of inequity or discrimination that tends to support and evidence discrimination from a quantitative rather than a qualitative perspective (Parker and Lynn 2002).
‘Whiteness’ and Whiteness Studies Dryer (1997,1-65) argues that ‘Whiteness is an invisible perspective, a dominant and normative space against which difference is measured’. Interestingly, McIntosh (1988, 147 - 160) supports Dryer’s definition and takes it to an even deeper level, contending that ‘Whiteness is the capacity that Whiteness brings for passing unnoticed, un-harassed, ‘unbothered’ through public space’. According to Leonardo (2004,137 -144) ‘Whiteness’ brings with it ’racial privilege [which] is the notion that White subjects accrue advantages by virtue of being constructed as Whites. Usually, this occurs through the valuation of White skin colour, although this is not the only criterion for racial distinction’. He continues with ‘...hair texture, nose shapes, culture, and language also multiply the privileges of Whites or those who approximate them’ (Hunter 2002,171-189). Fanon’s work (1967) deals with the desire to inhabit Whiteness, while Twine’s (1999) study of Brazil indicates that people of Color ‘whiten’ up in the census to satisfy personal (yet collectively refuted) desires for (White) privilege.
Garner (2006, 257) argues that the notion of ‘Whiteness is most effectively conceptualised as both a resource and a contingent hierarchy, and its utility is that it enables collective identities to be examined in a more nuanced way than is allowed for by the hegemonic Black/White, or more accurately, White/non-White paradigms’. Importantly, White privilege is like any social phenomenon, ‘it is complex and in a White-supremacist society, all White people have some sort of privilege in some settings. There are general patterns, but such privilege plays out differently depending on context and other aspects of one’s identity’ (Jensen 2005, 8). Garner’s (2006) work provides a historical timeline which implies that Whiteness studies follows a pattern that originates in the cultural path of Black America, that has then been hijacked by radical elements within the dominant ‘White’ culture. Such thinking can be traced back through the works of Du Bois (1977, 1935), Hughes (1947), Wright (1992), Ellison (1952), Baldwin (1955) and Fanon (1967). A survey conducted by Roediger on Black perspectives in 1999 enables one to focus on the genealogy of, and vernacular setting for the expression of Whiteness as ‘fear’ identified by Morrison (1987, 1993) and hooks (1997).
Understanding the notion of ‘Whiteness' is integral to this paper because Author 2, while visibly Black, has had the experience of being socialized as White, and consequent exposure to White privilege, as part of belonging to a White upper middle class family.
‘Intersectionality’ The term ‘intersectionality’ is mostly identified with CRT scholar Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), who along with other scholars contributed to and advocated thinking critically about the multidimensional aspect of women’s oppression along race, class and gender lines. According to Delgado Bernal (2002, 116) focusing on the intersection of oppression is vital because ‘one’s identity is not based on the social construction of race but rather is multidimensional and intersects with various experiences’. Many argue that scholars using the ‘intersectional approach’ will socially locate individuals in the context of their ‘real lives’ (Weber and Fore 2007, 123). Intersectional discussions examine how both the formal and informal systems of power are deployed, maintained and reinforced through notions of race, class and gender (Collins 1998, Weber and Fore 2007).
Author 1’s story
Progressing in academia
Hughes and Giles (2010, 42) contend that American HE ‘as a self replicating system, promotes many norms and values worth questioning under the lens of CRT’. They raise important questions as to ‘who gets in [academia] and who does not and …what are the ethnic penalties experienced by People of Color?’ (ibid, 51). In acknowledging the historical nature of ‘White privilege in America’ they argue ‘since higher education is a microcosm of American society, no matter where you go issues of race and racism are there waiting for you. Many of the structures held tightly in place at most institutions of higher education still reek with unexamined issues of racial and gender privilege and cultural inequity’ (ibid, 52). Similar arguments can be made about UK HE institutions. Drawing on CRT below I articulate my experience of gaining promotion and subsequent racialised experiences encountered.
Critical incident one
Black staff, though in academic positions are often viewed as not academic by White people and this is not helped by difficulties in gaining promotion. In a previous institution, I sought to gain promotion, but imagine a situation where two colleagues, one White and one Black (me) apply to be re-graded. The White staff member is encouraged to apply for promotion and their application is formerly supported by the White line manager, whilst the Black staff member is informed that there is a promotion process when she enquires, but nothing further happens. It happens that the White employee is promoted and when questions are asked by the Black employee about her own promotion she is told by her line manager: ‘I didn’t think you wanted to apply. I thought you wanted to wait’. ‘Wait, for what?’ was my reply. The line manager’s response above might be seen by some as a reasonable interpretation or that similar comments would have been made to White staff, but to me the comments reflected ‘problematic racialised interpretations’ (Nzegwu 2003, 105) about Black people’s ability and willingness to take on extra responsibility. Moreover, I was already working above the level for what I was being paid, and consistently showed that I fulfilled the higher grade role criteria (as stipulated by the university). Yet there was no formal approach on my behalf. Why? Because my White colleague was viewed as having ‘leadership potential’ (comment by the line manager) and I was not. Yet I had a similar workload with numerous management responsibilities, which also required me to demonstrate leadership skills, which needless to say I consistently did, and this was verified in my annual appraisals.
Using CRT as an explanatory framework on the one hand, I interpreted the lack of promotion support I received as one of racism, and paradoxically, it was also transformative. Rather than seeking to change my line manager’s perception of me (i.e. as not wanting to apply for promotion) Byrd (2009, 598) suggests that Black staff should ‘seek to change the situation’ they find themselves in. Zamudio et al. (2009, 461) similarly emphasise the need for developing ‘a tactical strategy for … change’. Therefore I endeavoured to change my employment position by applying for my post to be re-graded. Sometime following submission of my re-grading application I raised the subject of promotions at an academic staff meeting led by the University’s deputy vice chancellor (DVC), but he did not answer the question I posed. Immediately following the meeting simultaneously a White colleague and I approached the DVC. I was still in search of an answer to the question I had asked about promotions, but instead of responding to my repeated question, the DVC asked my colleague which academic department she was in, and then he turned to me and said, ’and you, you must be admin?’. It was the condescending way in which he said ‘admin’ as if I was some inferior being in the room which stunned me into silence. Furious I just stared at him whilst my colleague told him that we were both in the same academic department. I then walked off wondering how the DVC of a university with an ethnically diverse academic staff body, and with an equal opportunities and race equality policies could not only say what he said, but assume that I was a member of support staff when I had asked him a question relating to academic staff promotion in an academic staff meeting attended only by academic staff. Drawing on Ladson-Billings and Donnor (2005, 281) leads me to conclude that ‘despite [Black people’s] academic credentials and experience, [their] racial identity always serves as a mitigating factor for determining [their] authority and legitimacy’. Nzgewu (2003, 116-117) also suggests ‘any issue that challenges the structures prescribed natural order [of White power], or threatens its legitimacy and hierarchical order, academically appears unnatural and is subsequently “normalised” as pointless’. Following Nzgewu’s (2003) line of thought, my quest for promotion could be viewed as unnatural and if acceded to would challenge the institutional status quo. By not engaging with my question arguably the DVC maintained the normalisation and entrenchment of White power in academia and perceptions/constructions of Black people as ‘abnormal or deviant’ (Nzgewu’s 2003,117).
In the UK Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) academic staff are under-represented in senior positions in HE (HESA 2008/9) and experiences highlighted by Black academic staff with regard to their quest for promotion (several examples are highlighted in Leathwood et al. 2009, ECU 2011) confirm that I am not alone in these negative experiences. While my experiences are not unique, the work of Lloyd-Jones (2009) is nevertheless insightful. She reported that an African American senior administrator in a predominantly White university was able to progress in her career because of her ability to ‘recognise unfavourable and biased situations within organisations where she was employed that were not favourable to her career aspirations’ and ‘at the same time stay focused on her professional goals’ (Lloyd-Jones 2009, 613). In other words, this senior administrator identified and resisted White power structures that sought to ‘constrain her [abilities and] power’ (Byrd 2009, 614). In my own situation I realised that if I was to progress I needed to change universities. The comment by the DVC made me recognize that I did not want to progress in an institution where the hierarchy dictated that I was unwanted and would not be recognised as an academic. My decision to leave the university might be interpreted as a lack of resistance, but there are many ways to resist. I resolved to focus on the positive; the something positive was that I have a lot of experience, knowledge and skills to contribute in a senior role. Findings by Jean-Marie et al. (2009, 573) suggest that by focusing on ‘the negative [potential Black women leaders] can lose sight of the positive …and what is possible’, and instead should ‘process [negative experiences] in constructive ways’. Wilkinson and Blackmore’s (2008,128) study of leadership amongst non Anglo-Australian women in Australia, indicate that it is possible for non-White women to turn 'their [negative] outsider status into a form of 'power [of resistance] or positive capital' ( Wilkinson and Blackmore 2008, 127), and as argued by Hall, ‘when you set the terms in which the debate proceeds, that is an exercise of symbolic power’ (Hall 1988, 71, cited by Wilkinson and Blackmore 2008,131).
Critical incident two
Following my appointment to a senior post I changed universities. Sadly, occupying a senior position has not changed my perception that Black people are not viewed as academic, or indeed changed my opinion that the challenges I encounter in HE are due to the fact that I am Black rather because of my gender or class background (Author1 2009a). For example, whenever I go to collect books from the university library that I have ordered, despite having a staff ID card I am constantly referred to as a ‘student’. Once when I complained about this I was told that ‘all staff are referenced in this way’, but standing next to White academic staff in the library queuing for their books I know this is not the case. This might seem a trivial example, but as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva passionately recalled (about his own library experiences in an American university) in a keynote lecture in London in 2011 racial grammar (i.e. the language of race) is habitually used to mark out/define/reduce the existence of Black academics to that of a student. Being positioned always as a ‘student’ means that the knowledge Black academics bring to universities is never acknowledged, let alone valued.
Critical incident three Like other Black academics although I have a daily presence in HE, I experience it as an ‘invisible Other’ (Collins 2009, 110). In the eyes of White staff I do not really exist. This is evidenced for example, by a Black academic visitor to my university who was told that ‘no such person worked at the university’ and that ‘no one with that name was listed in the staff telephone directory [or] on the staff list’ when she informed the reception staff that she had an appointment to see me. Shortly after, I arrived at the reception desk to find the visitor looking very perplexed. Looking at me she turned to the receptionist and exclaimed: ‘look there she is, she does exist’! She then repeated what she had been told and I equally perplexed said to the receptionist: ‘you know me, I am a member of staff, I have spoken to you and collected my (recorded) post from you several times’; almost as if to justify my existence. To which she replied: ‘what’s your name?’. Added to being characterised as a student, my lack of existence (in the eyes of the receptionist) and absence from the staff list compounded my feelings of invisibility.
Nzegwu (2003, 105-6) attributes Black invisibility in academia to racist imperialism which ‘refuses to see’ Black people, and ‘the ideological force of Whiteness [which] works through a “silencing” cloak of invisibility’. She points out that ‘never revealing itself, the physical and psychic force of Whiteness systematically destroys cultures, peoples and objects in its path’ and that ‘stuck in an institutionally devalued skin, the stigmatising structures of Whiteness’ delegitimize [Black knowledge], oppress and exclude Black people (Nzegwu 2003, 105-6). I question if my ‘invisibility’ and my feelings of exclusion in HE are just the historical result of British imperialism or if gender actually plays a role as academia is predominated by (White) males. However, writings by American (Byrd, 2009), British (Wright et al. 2007) and Australian female academics (Wilkinson and Blackmore, 2008) suggest that when it comes to explaining minority ethnic academic experiences gender by itself is insufficient.
Critical incident four It could be argued that Black academics become invisible because they are considered inauthentic and as not having rights to what Bourdieu (2001,11) refers to as ‘legitimate membership’ in the university; legitimate membership is tied to the White middle classes who have access to capital, positions of authority and power. Archer (2008) states that authenticity in academia is judged according to the ability to publish in high quality journals and bringing in external research funds. In these terms I should be recognised as ‘authentic’ with the right to belong, but instead I find that I am continually viewed as not quite intellectual or knowledgeable enough not because of my class, but owing to taken for granted perceptions about the abilities of Black people (Byrd 2009). This is evidenced for example, by my review of the work of a PhD student (at the behest of a research centre director) which resulted in the student’s (White) supervisor sending me a confidential note prefaced with ‘please do not pass on’, and ‘I’m not criticising you, I hope you know that’ - in fact this is a constant refrain - but nevertheless she wanted me to explain (in a meeting which she later called) why I had asked for revisions and a resubmission of the work. At the meeting, while acknowledging that I knew ‘more about multicultural education’ (the focus of the student’s PhD) than she did, she insisted that she was the professor of education, not me; therefore my views were irrelevant. Yet interestingly, this very professor four days after rebuking me for my comments on her PhD student’s work, asked me to recommend texts for a masters degree course that she was developing which as she said, would enable students ‘to understand the range of explanations for minority ethnic pupil disaffection from schools’.
Nzegwu (2003, 116) maintains that White scholars in ‘internalising supremacist stereotypes, narratives and images make judgements about [Black people’s] intellectual capacities’. Analysing the White professor’s comments, on the one hand (despite being a PhD supervisor in my own right) I was not considered knowledgeable enough or had sufficient intellectual capacity to critique a PhD student’s work, but contrastingly, my knowledge of texts covering minority ethnic pupils and their learning was being sought. Was it that at a masters level I was considered capable and my suggestions were therefore ‘appreciated’ and thought ‘helpful’ (as the professor said), but at a PhD level my knowledge was viewed inadequate as this required a higher level of conceptualization, theorisation and understanding? Or was it that because the masters level texts were associated with minority ethnic pupils therefore my knowledge of such texts was deemed appropriate because what was required was merely an extension of my ‘cultural’/‘ethnic’ knowledge (Burke et al. 2000)? From a CRT perspective there is a third reading, of interest convergence (Bell 1995). In that instance, my knowledge of the texts the professor sought converged with her own White interests (i.e. of delivering a course) and was therefore accommodated under a veil of racial equality.
Conceptions of interest convergence do not however, detract from master narratives of Black gendered inequality. As Collins (2009, 272) notes Black women are not considered legitimate academics by White academicians owing to their reliance on ‘alternative knowledge processes to generate competing knowledge claims’ to White academics and on ‘the grounds that Black women’s work does not constitute credible research’. Arguably, my work on the subjective experiences/stories of BME children and staff in schools (e.g. Author 1 2009b, 2010) could be viewed as not producing credible research or legitimate knowledge and may explain why the White professor resented and dismissed my criticism of her student’s work. It may just be that because I dared to challenge this professor’s knowledge and the way in which she was directing the student’s work, she was determined to make it clear that I did not have the authority or ‘legitimacy’ to question the work, and more pertinently her knowledge/power. This coincides with the view of (Nzgewu 2003,109) who notes that ‘the operative modalities of White intellectualism ascribes ignorance to Black women’. She further contends that as ‘novices’ Black women are constantly required to ‘prove [their] knowledge and intelligence each time a white person happens along’ because ‘in a plantation-type framework, only Whites are deemed intellectually competent to articulate the important theoretical issues in scholarship’ (Nzgewu 2003,126).
Being placed ‘in a position of intellectual otherness’ Nzgewu (2003,111) and not having ‘legitimacy’ amongst senior White academics I also find that I am disrespected by professors (male and female) I am supposed to be working with on PhD supervision and developing staff research capacity; resulting in them for example, not responding to emails I send, and me having to present myself in their offices and/or confront them in corridors in order to get a response. Where I am acknowledged by professors I find this is to remind me of my place such as when a professor having received an email from another professor and into which I was copied, sent an email in response to the one she had received pointing out that she ‘did not appreciate being copied into an email with junior staff’. As I was the other staff member that the email was copied to, it is safe to assume that this professor objected to me having knowledge of an email she was party to, not because I lacked status (as I have a senior position), but simply because I am Black, and she like other staff of similar standing, did not want to share (White) power.
Author 2’s story ‘Who am I’? And where do I belong in academia?
According to Montecinos (1995) members of a group may not always recognise themselves:
The use of a master narrative to represent a group is bound to provide a very narrow depiction of what it means to be a Mexican-American, African-American, White and so on…A master narrative essentialises and wipes out the complexities and richness of a group’s cultural life…A monovocal account will engender not only stereotyping but also curricular choices that result in representations in which fellow members of a group represented cannot recognize themselves (Montecinos 1995, 293-294).
As an academic in HE I have often asked myself the question, “Who am I?”. There is a significant gap in addressing the notion of Whiteness through the lens of a ‘Black’ skinned person brought up as White. The complexity is that as a Black person I am perceived (by White and Black people) as having the same experiences as all other Black people. However, being socialised White sets me apart. For me the notion of ‘Blackness’ is experienced through the lens of ‘Whiteness’ – and as such I am unable to relate my racial experiences through the framework of CRT but instead use Whiteness Studies and intersectionality as both ‘Blackness’ and ‘Whiteness’ form part of my psychology. Both form part of the recurring question of what it means to be ‘White’ and what it means to be ‘Black’.
Interestingly, whereas White privilege came about from taking from others, my life has been more about giving up my ’White’ privileges either consciously or unconsciously. This raises the question: How does one come to terms with White socialisation as an advantage and at the same time ‘Blackness’ which is experienced as a disadvantage? The three critical incidents discussed below illustrate how ‘Whiteness’ and the concept of ‘White privilege’ have influenced my experiences as a Black middle-class female in HE . Each incident forms an integral part of my multiple identities.
Critical incident one
I started working in academia when asked to consider a position as part of a national initiative to increase the number of BME students entering teacher training programmes within English universities. The project involved both quantitative and qualitative research, to identify the support needs that BME students may have. What was apparent was that they were looking for a Black researcher - not any Black researcher, but one with the qualities they believed would fit in the academy. These are the attributes that are not written into the role specification but communicated through non-verbal agreement prior to or during the interview: the hidden questions, ‘Will they fit with the team?’, and ‘How do they look and present themselves?’. The questions have both class and ‘race’ undertones. The notion of bringing difference to the team could be seen as desirable - encouraging inclusion or creating a greater understanding in the workforce. In this instance it may have been tokenism. I attended a very informal interview with the Dean of Faculty. I was being employed on the basis of an oral reference from the principal of my college, who happened to be a friend of the person who wished to employ me.
This experience contradicts that of many Black intellectuals who often do not have the networks or social contacts. West (1994,56-67) lists three key obstacles that hinder the chances of the present-day Black academic; the first is the attitudes of White scholars, which he claims are very different from the past, mainly because of the directed hostility from White members of the academy, towards the affirmative-action of US programmes. Secondly, West points out that the literate subcultures are less open to the Black voice now than they were three to four decades ago but rather they ‘have created rigid lines of demarcation and distance between White and Black intellectuals’. The third point that West makes is more complex: that the ‘general politicization of American intellectual life, along with the rightward ideological drift, constitutes a hostile climate for the making of black intellectuals’ (ibid, 56-67).
The job raised a number of racial and class issues for me – the first from a completely unexpected source. I had started to date a Black male of Jamaican descent whose upbringing and awareness of being Black was very different to mine. (I am Black African/English but raised as a White, having been adopted as a baby by White upper-middle class parents.) He had a Masters degree, yet was finding it very difficult to find meaningful employment. He was extremely resentful and upset that I (‘some White coconut’ - a name he called me because of my privileged ‘White’ up-bringing) should be granted the opportunity to work in the academy without the need to apply formally. At the time I had no idea why he would display such negativity towards me; I thought he would be pleased. However, I enquired with my new boss whether I could bring another person into the project as an adviser. This situation revealed that I was very comfortable with members of the White community, as I was able to negotiate on behalf of my Black friend. However, there are many questions that occur from this difficult and challenging situation. Why did I feel the need to entertain his abusive insults and at the same time attempt to accommodate his needs? Was I trying to compensate for my Whiteness?
I did not understand that I was passing over my own opportunity to a frustrated and angry man who wished for the entry into academia that I had been given and perhaps, the experience of White privilege that he purported to detest. Was this an act of sexism or racism or both, or was it his perception of my ‘upper-class privilege’ that was tearing him apart? Whatever it was, it started me on the process of questioning who I was and whether I was ‘Black’ enough to work on such a project. I had always been surrounded by a very middle-class White community – and my accent and behaviour were, I suppose, very ‘White’. It could be argued that, as a ‘socialised ‘White’, in theory I have gained “unearned advantages that whites, by virtue of their race, have over people of Color” Leonardo (2004 137-144). This means I am constantly having to play down my experience of White privilege and justify my existence because my experience does not mirror the norm for other Black academics. It gets even more complex, because even though I have numerous experiences of racism, I find myself minimizing these experiences. I find it difficult to connect with emotions when it comes to racism because I don’t feel it is speaking to me or my inner socialized White self. It is only when Black academics hear my story and their emotions have been stirred that I am able to recognise the extent of the racial experience encountered.
It was agreed that my Jamaican friend would be an adviser to the project but it soon became clear that his intention was to take over the project. However, this did not happen as he wanted the status but was unable to complete the work. The contribution that he made to the project was to constantly remind me that my history got in the way in this particular role. I was not ‘Black’ enough, and I did not even have a Black way of thinking. Until this moment I had had no problem with who I was: I had worked hard and was very much involved with social justice issues.
The opportunity that had arisen at the University would enable me to help BME student teachers. It was a privilege I was happy to share with my Jamaican friend. He, however, believed that that the post should have been given to someone like him; someone who was far more Black (Black in the sense of understanding the cultural dimension of Blackness) than I was. Taking a closer look at ‘what was going on’ reveals his own insecurity about not finding work in his chosen field. When I reflect back, it was one of those bizarre situations that had occurred because of my ‘Whiteness’ and the need of people like my friend to stop my progress because of the pain that society had placed onto him because of his Blackness. I felt I had entered into a vacuum of guilt about my White privileged upbringing - this guilt that Jensen (2005) refers to about White people when they express remorse for slavery or about racism more generally. Being socialized White confers on me a burden which could be the same as ’White guilt’. The question I have to contend with is, does it include the same issues that other Whites discuss, such as feeling personal responsibility for slavery, job discrimination, colonialism and other crimes against racial minorities? To which I would say ‘no’ because as Leonardo (2004: 137-144) suggests this “kind of guilt can be a paralysing sentiment that helps neither Whites nor People of Color’’, and I do not intend to be paralysed by guilt.
However, being socialized as White can cause problems. I remember having a discussion with another Black staff member who believed Black people socialized as White were part of the problem, as we were seen by other Black people as ’uncle Toms’ who were easily accepted in the academy. What they failed to understand is that ‘Blacks’ in my position are not acting White to move up the system: they have been socialised White which is entirely different. There is also a failure to recognize that just as Black people experience racism from White staff who feel they do not fit in the academy, Black staff who are socialized White doubly experience rejection from other Black staff who equally feel they do not belong.
My university appointment represented the first Black staff member appointed to the faculty of Education. The Dean accepted me as a member of faculty -highly recommended through a very good source. However, I had a different reception from many of the staff. They had been in their positions for many years – and were not about to submit themselves to scrutiny by a recent appointment who happened to be ‘Black’. There was a firm view that the reason that Black students were not visible on the teacher education programmes was either because they had not applied, or when they did apply they were not good enough. In their minds this project had been inflicted onto them without prior consultation – and much of their anger was directed to me; “Who is she and who invited her to the scholarly table?”. It was difficult to know whether the staff were questioning the appointment because of how they felt about Black students not being good enough, or because of their overall perceptions of ‘Black’ people. Can Black people not aspire to the same things every White person in England takes for granted? This is something that Cose (1993) discusses within his book The Rage of a Privileged Class. Many Black professionals interviewed in the book were constantly being questioned and made to jump through hoops that did not appear necessary for the advancement of the position that they held. The Black professionals worked harder at proving themselves and winning acceptance. White professionals’ experiences were different as they did not have the racial undertones that were part of the ‘Black’ experience.
Interestingly, when staff asked about my identity, I found myself responding with ‘English’. Englishness had not been something I had questioned. Instead I very much objected to being called a ‘lady’ as the term to me was loaded with the notion of class, and I had not yet explored or accepted that the family that I had been raised with was upper-middle class. The difficulty here is that some White English people may not see me as English and therefore I reluctantly accepted the categorization of British.
The next academic year two new appointments were made, two Black academics – I had paved the way for them, which was an achievement. However, the welcome I received from one of them was very luke warm. The same issue had returned: “Is this the kind of Black we are expected to be?” Yet again I had been misunderstood and hung out to dry whilst the two ‘proper’ Black academics established their position within the academy. The mis-match between my race and my class led to questions from all quarters – from the White staff about my race; and from the new Black staff and my Jamaican friend for not being ‘Black’ enough.
Critical incident two The next incident involves what I call the ‘hidden curriculum’. Much of the curriculum and research that I have a passion for is about women. Ironically, the experience that I am bringing to the table is about gender and class (upper middle class) – I had been accepted by the academy on the basis of my class. I had previously worked in two Further Education (FE) Colleges and it was whilst I was employed at one of those colleges that I received many invitations from local universities to attend seminars and participate in projects focusing on women. Again I had not understood the complexity of the situation. I thought that I was politically aware - I was - but just with the understanding of women as a whole as I was yet to understand that there was a difference between Black and White women’s experiences. The real political journey began when I took up employment in an FE college based in the south east. Here I experienced the many challenges of being Black and female. I would arrive at women’s meetings that I had been nominated to chair and the women would suggest that I was in the wrong meeting as this meeting was for and about women, not race. I found myself asking the same question that Sojourner Truth asked - So was I not then a woman? Apparently, I needed to choose between the race agenda or the women’s agenda when to me ‘woman’ would always be first, class second and ‘race’ third.
Critical incident three During 2008 I started work at another top UK university as a senior manager. I was recruited to a department renowned for leadership development. However, the majority of the leaders were White and all of the Black staff, except two, held positions of low responsibility. My role was to head up a section of 5 White members of staff and 20 associate staff members who were out in the field delivering executive education. Most of the outer and inner team consisted of retired head teachers, deputy heads and senior school administrators.
In this case, I achieved the post very much through my own efforts, and not just because of who I knew. When I received the notification that I had been appointed, I was ecstatic that I had been chosen to take on this enormous task. I can recall the very first day. I asked the question, “Will there be an induction?” and was informed, “You would be lucky; ask the team members and they will induct you”, and then there was a laugh: “You are a senior member of staff after all”.
I set up meetings to understand and establish the purpose of the work that the team was doing. Prior to these meetings I had been aware that this team was deemed ‘dysfunctional’ and my appointment was to ensure that the group would start to work together as a team. My role was to make change happen. However, I had not been prepared for the rejection that lay ahead. The team was not only resentful, but had not had a chance to prepare itself for a leader of my background and calibre.
Much of the resentfulness, in my opinion, could only be attributed to race. They made numerous criticisms about my ability to do the job which could not be substantiated. Working there was a miserable experience. Some of the White staff members isolated me, criticised me behind my back, refused to offer me any assistance, didn’t socialise with me, and made out that it was me being unsociable. They took no account of the fact that I was completely new to the role and made no attempt to accommodate me. They told me nothing about the work, and then criticised me for not knowing. I questioned and reflected again and again on whether I was to blame, and frequently changed my approach – but nothing changed.
Eventually, after a difficult meeting with my team and senior management, I was given the option of moving to another department, which I accepted. Racism had won the day. I went on to achieve success in other roles – but other Black academics may have crumbled. I was told by several managers both Black and White that I had handled the situation with dignity. I was left with unanswered questions - what did that experience mean?
Concluding thoughts Crucial to both of the stories discussed in this paper is the question of fitting in/being out of place in academia and having the right to occupy senior positions. Author 2’s story is particularly poignant as being raised White and middle class ultimately she should ‘fit in’ without question as academia is underpinned by White privilege and White middle classness. Yet occupying this space has not been easy because it is not just the Blackness that seems to get in the way of acceptance and progression in HE as gender and class are integral to being perceived/accepted as the appropriate fit or not within the academy. The questions posed around her ‘Black’ identity have also led to Author 2 further questioning who she is and who or what determines who is Black or White.
This paper has shown that ‘Black’ recognition (whether by White or Black staff) in academia is qualified and contingent. Moreover, it underlines the complexity of the term ‘Black’ (Author 1 2009c) and the extent to which intersectionality cannot be ignored in any analyses of Black identities (Brah and Phoenix 2004). On the one hand, the experiences revealed by Author 2 exemplify Gilroy’s (2002) view of ethnic absolutism in which:
the absolutist view of Black and White cultures, as fixed, mutually impermeable expressions of racial and national identity, is a ubiquitous theme in racial ‘common sense’, but it is far from secure. It is constantly under the challenge of blacks who pass through the cultural and ideological net which is supposed to screen Englishness from them (Gilroy 2002, 68-69).
Whilst on the other, the racialised experiences of Author 1 reinforce Gilroy’s (1990:114) perspective that Blackness can be a ‘disqualifier from membership of the national [White] community’ (of which HE is representative), and that of Byrd (2009, 595) who notes that Black academics have ‘to pass the test [amongst Whites] of being knowledgeable or being qualified to perform in the capacity of a leader’. Author 1’s story suggests that despite occupying a senior position she has yet to pass this test, especially when colleagues refuse to meet with her, acknowledge her existence/leadership position and/or question her knowledge and authority.
Taking time out to work on this paper has been an emotional rollercoaster between the two Black academics. Completing the paper was the first opportunity for both authors to intellectualise their constructions of Blackness together. There were many tortuous times during the period of writing when we danced around each other’s feelings attempting to gain further insight into how the other was feeling. Burke, Cropper and Harrison (2000, 306) observe that while naming one’s oppressive experiences ‘is difficult and emotionally demanding’ (see also Holmes 2010) it ‘is a necessary step’, especially if Black academics are to ‘develop strategies that will assist in the struggle against social, cultural and institutionalised oppression’ (ibid, 302). However, one of the key difficulties we really struggled with is that experiences Author 1 held onto and regarded as salient, Author 2 dismissed as ‘baggage’, immaterial to her/the Black academic experience. As ‘baggage’, the experiences Author 1 recounted were considered ‘burdensome’ by Author 2, and needing to be let go of otherwise they would affect her ability to function effectively. As well as being ‘burdensome’, they were dismissed as ‘insignificant’ and as not warranting a comment or the level of reflections that Author 1 gave them. Interestingly, Author 2 was able to intellectually engage with Author 1’s experience yet was unable to emotionally feel what Author 1 felt about the racist experiences she encountered. This lack of emotion frustrated Author 1, because at times speaking to Author 2 felt as though she was speaking to somebody White and in many respects, she felt Author 2’s reaction epitomised White staff perceptions of Black staff having ‘chips’ on their shoulders (discussed in Author 1, 2009c). However, as we broke through the yoke of difficulty we recognised that we were treading on ground that was unfamiliar to either of us; Author 1 because she gained strength from using CRT as a tool to unravel her racialised experiences, and Author 2, as her work encompassed intersectionality as a theoretical framework along with Whiteness studies. Nonetheless, there were periods throughout the writing process when we talked intensively about the many experiences which would either leave us hungry for more information or frustrated and concerned that the other had been hurt or misunderstood. Despite these difficulties, we contend that the process has been worthwhile as it has helped to forefront the different processes and understandings that individuals struggle with as they work through what it is like to be ‘Black’ within HE, and pointed to the need for greater scrutiny of the term ‘Black’ when applied to research data analysis and the theoretical tools that can be applied to such analyses.
Finally, in writing this paper, we sought to understand the extent to which CRT, Whiteness studies and intersectionality are useful theoretical/conceptual tools in conceptualising the experiences of Black academics. Overall, the paper exposes contradictions in Black women’s academic experiences which are not simply explained away by racism, but instead are fuelled by embodied Whiteness. The paper contends that while CRT is a useful explanatory framework in understanding Black women’s academic experiences underpinned by racism, other theoretical models may also need to be applied. Additionally, it suggests that while the perspectives of CRT and Whiteness studies cannot neatly be integrated, they are of value in helping to unpack diverse Black academic staff experiences.
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