Hidden in Plain Sight: The Black Women’s Blueprint for Institutional Transformation in Higher Education
by Lori D. Patton & Chayla Haynes - 2018
Many institutional leaders find themselves struggling to achieve racial equity in a sociopolitical context where hatemongering, misogyny, xenophobia, heterosexism, and racism have been normalized and minoritized students, staff, and faculty have been relegated to the margins. Few institutional leaders (e.g., presidents, provosts, chancellors, boards of trustees, deans) understand how, why, and the extent to which minoritized peoples are affected by multiple and overlapping forms of oppression. As a result, institutional change efforts to transform campuses into identity-affirming and socially just learning environments often prove ineffective because college and university leaders typically engage in single-axis identity politics to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. In this article, the authors challenge institutional leaders to take up intersectionality as a method of engaging in lasting transformational change that promises to advance racial equity in higher education. The authors also expose the limitations of existing institutional change models by highlighting their intersectional failures and prompt readers to imagine Black women as possibility models for institutional change that transforms higher education and advances racial equity.
There are numerous events shaping the higher education landscape, including state-sanctioned violence by police coupled with the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter and campus protests, federal and state-level threats to deport undocumented students and their family members, White nationalist rallies occurring on and near college campuses, and the election of a U.S. president whose language and actions are resoundingly divisive and offensive. Not surprisingly, institutional leaders find themselves struggling to achieve racial equity in a sociopolitical context where hatemongering, misogyny, xenophobia, heterosexism, and racism have been normalized and minoritized1 students, staff, and faculty have been relegated to the margins. Few institutional leaders (e.g., presidents, provosts, chancellors, boards of trustees, deans) understand how, why, and the extent to which minoritized peoples are affected by multiple and overlapping forms of oppression. As a result, institutional change efforts to transform campuses into identity-affirming and socially just learning environments (Tuitt, 2016) often prove ineffective because college and university leaders typically engage in single-axis identity politics (Collins & Bilge, 2016; Crenshaw, 1991) to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Collins and Bilge state, When it comes to social inequality, peoples lives and the organization of power are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division but many axes that work together and influence each other (p. 2). The use of single-axis foci allows limited space for leaders to grapple with multiple forms of oppression, which simultaneously occur on college campuses.
For example, recent efforts in higher education to address sexual assault violence mostly endorse a narrative that establishes White women as victims and seldom centers the experiences of minoritized students. Such a narrative caters primarily to gender oppression, thereby limiting space for a more complex examination of sexual assault violence. However, if institutional leaders employed an intersectional lens to examine this issue, they would discover that racism, sexism, and homophobia have a compounding effect that renders cisgender women of color, transgender women of color, and queer men of color particularly vulnerable to such violence on campus (Harris & Linder, 2017). Institutional change efforts to disrupt sexual and gender violence, devoid of efforts to advance racial equity, ineffectively address the needs of minoritized students on campus. Though espoused through the language of institutional change, such efforts actually contribute to the erasure of the aforementioned populations and ensure their invisibility in discourse, policy, and programming to address sexual assault.
In this article, we challenge institutional leaders to take up intersectionality as a method of engaging in lasting transformational change that promises to advance racial equity in higher education. Intersectionality is a tool used to analyze and address social inequality (Collins & Bilge, 2016). Although intersectionality can operate as a standalone framework, it has been heavily used in relation to Black feminist epistemologies that enable a critique of how interlocking systems of oppression press down simultaneously and affect minoritized populations (Collins, 1990, 2017; Collins & Bilge, 2016; Crenshaw, 1991; hooks, 1981). We illustrate how institutional leaders can employ an intersectional approach to institutional transformation that is grounded in the traditions, intellect, and contributions of Black womenour thesis is not new. For example, Patricia Hill Collinss scholarship on Black feminist thought and Black feminist epistemology (Collins, 1986, 1989, 1997, 2000, 2009; Collins & Bilge, 2016) asserts the value of centering Black womens experiences at the center of complex analyses. Such analyses encourage institutional leaders to not only critique traditional ideologies, but also consider how Black womens epistemologies provide an intersectional framework for achieving transformative change on college campuses.
In the section that follows, we expose the limitations of existing institutional change models by highlighting their intersectional failures. Then, we problematize the inability of society and higher education to imagine Black women as change agents and offer our perspective on Black women as possibility models. Finally, we close with contemporary examples to illuminate how institutional leaders can enact institutional change that transforms higher education and advances racial equity.
THE MASTERS TOOLS: INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE MODELS AND INTERSECTIONAL FAILURES
The literature on institutional change describes how macrolevel organizational change occurs in higher education. The presentation of these models in the literature is rarely situated in a critical paradigm and never engages a perspective that centers Black women. Rather, the majority of institutional change models are concerned with determining people's capacity to manage or shape change (Kezar, 2001; Kingston & Caballero, 1998). Institutional change models are rooted in dominant ideologies, and institutional leaders choice in a model is neither random nor neutral (Kezar, 2001). While many change models/theories exist in the literature, Kezar (2001) grouped them into six larger categories that, at times, are employed in combination: (a) evolutionary, (b) teleological, (c) life cycle, (d) political, (e) social cognition, and (f) cultural. Her research also revealed that many of these models are foundational and have been used to drive change efforts in higher education for generations, whereas others emerged later to resolve inherent tensions within those established earlier. Each category has its own strengths and criticisms, as well as shared characteristics.
Evolutionary models, for instance, consider environment, but they are criticized for their deterministic nature in limiting peoples influence over the change process (Kezar, 2001). Change models that are teleological view change agents and people at the center of the change process, but they are often critiqued for their assumption that organizations and their people are predictable and rational (Kezar, 2001). Life cycle models stress the importance of examining the change occurring across peoples life cycles and the organizations they create, yet little empirical evidence about their validity exists compared to other change models (Kezar, 2001). Change models categorized as political are set apart from earlier models in that political models do not presume all change is good. Instead, political models situate organizations as political structures that operate to maintain the status quo (Kezar, 2001). While political models offer a more critical lens, they provide leaders little direction for enacting change (Kezar, 2001).
Kezar (2001) asserts that change models in the social cognition category suggest no single perception of organizational reality exists and thus, change occurs through a learning process among people who experience cognitive dissonance. However, change models are often critiqued for dismissing how emotions, values, and feelings also greatly shape an individuals ability to understand and cope with change (Kezar, 2001). Finally, cultural models share assumptions about change that align with models in the social, cognitive, and political categories and assert that change can be unmanageable resulting from ever-changing organizational culture (Kezar, 2001). Notwithstanding, models in the cultural category are critiqued for the length of time in which change occurs under given conditions.
We argue that existing and often relied upon change models are limited in their ability to assist higher education leaders in facilitating institutional transformation that advances racial equity because those models do not promote the use of intersectionality. We expand on Kezars (2001) scholarship by exposing the intersectional failures of these models, perhaps also shedding light on why so little has changed in higher education despite seemingly positive institutional efforts to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also identify areas of limitation that could be addressed using an intersectional lens.
INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE MODELS ARE RARELY INTERSECTIONAL
Institutional change models that account for intersectionality would (a) address the latent power relations that influence minoritized populations ability to shape institutional change that affects them and (b) insist that institutional change efforts contend with why and how minoritized populations on campus can experience racism and multiple other forms of oppression simultaneously.
INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE MODELS SELDOM ENCOURAGE LEADERS TO LOOK TO THE BOTTOM
Critical legal scholar Mari Matsuda (1987) stated,
Those who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen. Looking to the bottom[or] adopting a perspective of those who have seen and felt the falsity of the liberal promisecan assist in the task of defining the elements of justice. (p. 324)
She further argued that the technique of imagining oneself black and poor in some hypothetical world is less effective than studying the actual experience of black poverty and listening to those who have done so (p. 324). Those who could not (and cannot) imagine notions of justice, fairness, and equality in the law are only capable of understanding Black poverty and life at the bottom in the abstract. Similarly, higher education often treats justice and equity in an abstract fashion, addressing only the most blatant forms of racial oppression as they unfold on campus. As a result, insidious oppression and discrimination situated in campus policies and the overall campus milieu are ignored by leaders incapable of recognizing the confluence of racial, environmental, and political inequities embedded in institutional structures. By looking to the bottom, institutional leaders would realize that for racially minoritized populations, racism is rarely a single actor in the process of oppression. When the experiences of minoritized groups are centered in institutional decision-making in collaboration with these groups, radically different ideas can be generated than those from the top alone (p. 326). Specifically, looking to the bottom ensures greater likelihood that persistent educational norms and traditions that maintain oppression and systemic inequity in higher education will be redressed.
INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE MODELS OFTEN PROMOTE INVESTMENTS IN WHITE HETERO CISPATRIARCHY
Institutional change models frequently describe change as occurring in ways that further invest in White hetero cispatriarchy. White hetero cispatriarchy (hooks, 2004; Lipsitz, 2006; Smith, 2013) describes a political and economic system of dominance that normalizes and advantages Whiteness, cisgenderism, maleness, and heteronormativity. Subsequently, institutional change efforts that in actuality are investments in White hetero cispatriarchy are based on oversimplified understandings of race that presume all minoritized people experience White supremacy in the exact same way (Smith, 2013). As a result, racially minoritized groups, particularly those who are low income, women, trans*, and gender nonconforming, are literally erased in the name of institutional change.
INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE MODELS ENCOURAGE THE USE OF THE MASTERS TOOLS
In The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House, Black feminist author Audre Lorde argued that using the Masters Tools to engage in liberation cannot be done without simultaneously rebuilding the Masters House. Lordes (2007) conceptualization of the Masters Tools has bearing on institutional change efforts. When the Masters Tools of racist hetero cispatriarchy are used to design institutional efforts intended to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, only meager and superficial change is possible and allowable (Lorde, 2007). Additionally, institutional change models that encourage the use of the Masters Tools tend to position the college/university as the Master House and the ultimate source of support for those engaged in the struggle for their liberation both on and off campus. Consequently, institutional change efforts that were formed using the Master's Tools ultimately serve the interests of the Masters House (Lorde, 2007) by making sure that that the race equity workers on their campus remain occupied with the Masters concerns (e.g., White innocence2 and White fragility3) in the name of institutional change.
Overall, current institutional change models are not expansive enough. They are insufficient in prompting institutional leaders to think and act differently in their efforts to create institutional spaces that realistically promote the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a result, institutional leaders must engage in a paradigm shift away from dominant conceptions of institutional change and transformation. This process also requires institutional leaders to broaden their conception of possibilities for institutional change. In particular, they should consider the epistemologies and experiences of populations that are rarely centered in institutional change discourses, such as Black women.
FAILING TO IMAGINE BLACK WOMEN AS POSSIBILITY MODELS FOR INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE
When considering possibilities for institutional change, Black women are rarely at the forefront, yet their lives, experiences, and worldviews represent the greatest opportunities to address the intersectional failures outlined above. The task of imagining Black women as institutional change agents is difficult at best because of the limited societal frames placed upon them. As Crenshaw (2016) noted in a recent TED Talk, using stereotypical frames to interpret Black women is detrimental because it operates as a form of dehumanization and erasure. Numerous Black women scholars have outlined the frames (or controlling images/stereotypes /tropes) to which we refer below, including Collins (2000), Harris-Perry (2011), and hooks (1981, 2015). One frame to which Black women are externally confined is the Mammy. Mammy was constructed as someone committed to caring for others, especially White others and their children. She has the uncanny ability to make everyone feel better as she soothes and comforts, while forsaking her own preservation. The ultimate image of selflessness is projected through the Mammy stereotype. Mammy extends her love to others, yet is less likely to secure intimate relationships because her large physique and dark skin are deemed unattractive.
The second frame is Sapphire and Jezebel, or the sassy, angry, and disruptive image of Black women. Sapphire is depicted as loud and disrespectful regardless of context. Moreover, as Jezebel, she is believed to use her body as a tool to get what she wants (e.g., gold digger; manipulator), irrespective of the consequences. The Superwoman frame presents Black women as superhuman and with supernatural strength. The Superwoman is able to maintain a consistent grind to get the job done, without succumbing to the psychological, physical, and emotional pain involved. Furthermore, the Superwoman is independent and does not rely on men for anything. Both Sapphire and Superwoman frames operate to emasculate Black menSapphire through her words and Superwoman through her actions.
While Mammy, Sapphire, and Superwoman stereotypes have persisted over time, additional frames are emerging and are particularly relevant in educational contexts. However, these newer frames are more sophisticated and challenging to decipher given the insidious ways in which they celebrate Black women while simultaneously reducing them to dominant tropes that can dehumanize. The more recent tropes include Black women as the new model minority and Black women as #BlackGirlMagic. The new model minority trope suggests a certain exceptionalism associated with Black women. The new model minority trope situates Black women to represent what every other minoritized group should aspire to be like. Black women are depicted as outpacing Black men by attaining good and respectable jobs to legitimize the American dream and illustrate that equity is possible. The new model minority relies heavily on a bootstrap mentality and operates in a fashion similar to the model minority stereotyping of Asian American ethnic groups. Thanks to recent media coverage, this particular frame is increasingly being applied in educational contexts due to reports of Black women being the most educated group in the United States despite contradictory evidence (R. Davis, 2016; Helm, 2016; Kaba, 2008; Parker, 2016).
CaShawn Thompson introduced #BlackGirlMagic, a hashtag intended to uplift Black women and celebrate their accomplishments and contributions. However, #BlackGirlMagic is usually misinterpreted to suggest that Black women are somehow miraculous, closely linked to notions of them being superhuman or surreal. However, misinterpretations and misunderstanding of the hashtag can dismiss the actual labor Black women contribute. Patton and Croom (2017) argued,
While the purpose of the Black Girl Magic message across Black womens communities is rooted in self-empowerment and uplift, the message has also been mishandled and used as a trope to diminish the complexity of its meaning for Black women, who are generally forced to define and redefine themselves beyond stereotypical notions of resilience and success. (p. 7)
Neither of the aforementioned tropes presents a holistic view of Black womens lives and experiences. Yet, they are used as if they capture the totality of Black womanhood. As a result, Black women become mired in a liminal state that prevents or at least stifles them from being viewed as possible institutional change agents. Put simply, these limited frames construct a single story about Black womanhood as incapable of transformational institutional change. Feminist scholar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) noted, The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story (n.p.). She later shares, Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. Nevertheless, stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity (n.p.).
One of the stories often intended to break the dignity of Black women is their treatment as workers and laborers only. Each of the tropes above alludes to Black womens work. They are working for others as Mammy, working to get what they want as Sapphire, and working too hard as Superwoman. As model minorities, Black women work better than others do. Through #BlackGirlMagic their labor is construed as miraculous. Black feminist scholars have unpacked Black womens work and the necessity of centering Black feminist epistemologies when speaking of Black womens work. Writings about Black womens work often refer to Zora Neale Hurstons book (1937/2004) Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which the main character, Janie, explains the load Black women are expected to bear as the mule uh de world (p. 17). This notion of being a mule carries with it both a symbolic and literal connotation. Symbolically, Black womens work is burdened with the heavy load that sits at the nexus of racism, sexism, classism, and numerous other forms of oppression. Janies use of the mule metaphor points to a seeming dehumanization of Black women, where their work is primarily about serving others, never being recognized for their contributions, and the overall expectation that they engage this work in silence and without complaint. Black womens work extends beyond paid labor. It is also characterized by unpaid labor in their homes (and oftentimes the homes of others), not to mention the labor required toward the continued uplift of Black people. Black womens work is frequently a thankless form of labor, where their work is primarily about doing without acknowledgment or reward.
SHAME MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES AND THE SILENCING OF BLACK WOMEN
Whether working for a Fortune 500 company, working in academe, or as a domestic laborer, Black women certainly hold value and represent the promise of amazing possibilities in this world and in postsecondary education. However, recognizing such a promise demands that institutional leaders expend the time and energy to center their voices beyond these stereotypical frames. Doing so also requires thoughtful avoidance of using Black womens work as a tool against them. For example, institutions recognition of Black womens work can actually operate as a double-edged sword, in that the intense labor embedded in Black womens work gives weight to the strong black woman archetype. Harris-Perry (2011) referenced this trope as part of a larger shame management strategy in which Black women, when their plight is examined, force society to take a long and hard look in the mirror. In the introduction of her book Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry offered a similar idea:
The struggle for recognition is the nexus of human identity and national identity, where much of the important work of politics occurs. African American women fully embody this struggle. By studying the lives of black women, we gain important insight into how citizens yearn for and work toward recognition. (p. 4)
She later states, It is African American women, surviving at the nexus of racialized, gendered, and classed dis-privilege who mark the progress of the nation (pp. 1617). Similarly, the disenfranchisement of Black women and girls is perhaps the most difficult thing with which educational institutions must grapple. Yet, instead of doing so, Black women and girls are celebrated with labels such as strong, resilient, and self-efficacious as if to compliment. Such compliments, however, operate in ways to concomitantly comfort Black women and manage institutional shame. In order to better explicate the contradictory nature of Black womens work as a shame management strategy, an example is warranted.
Oprah Winfrey is a Black woman who has been transparent about her victimization and abuse as a young girl. Growing up poor and suffering a miscarriage as a teenager were major challenges, yet she managed to seize opportunities and later became the face of daytime television, and owner of her own cable network and her own magazine. She is undeniably one of the worlds most influential people and is revered by many, some even calling for Oprah to run for President of the United States in 2020. However, Winfrey occupies a precarious position, one that exemplifies the embedded contradictories in Black womens work and the insidious nature of enduring tropes. Oprah Winfrey is world-renowned; nonetheless, she is also subjected to Mammification. In this regard, Winfrey is expected to be both counselor and mother to her diverse audiences. The primary demographic of her following is White, middle-aged women, who undoubtedly love her, but also require her to care for them. Due to the entertainment empire she has amassed, Winfrey is also a magical Superwoman. How else would she have been able to accrue wealth and fame in television and film? Presumably, not by sheer labor alone. By celebrating Winfrey and her accomplishments, Black womens devaluation and marginalization can be silenced, all while essentializing her as a model minority. In her essay, How Can We Love Oprah but Hate Black Women?, Essig (2011) problematized internal and external constructions of Winfreys presence and status by stating,
It is as Mammy that Oprah told us, her fans, that we were the biggest love of her life. And she of ours. In a way. Because were Oprah not there to comfort us, we would not love her, but loathe her. (para. 6)
Imagining Black women as possibility models for change requires institutional leaders to comprehend how dominant tropes perpetuate inherent contradictions about Black womens labor that can be reinforced through educational norms and traditions that are, in fact, shame management strategies. Tapping into Black womens promise as models of institutional change also requires reckoning with (a) the troubling erasure and silence that results from these tropes and contradictions, as well as (b) the subsequent psychological and social violence inflicted upon them through erasure processes. Efforts to overtly and subversively silence Black women are common, although not openly discussed. Historically, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) is reflective of intersectional invisibility and the silencing of Black women. For example, Ella Baker was central to the CRM. In addition to establishing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, she was an NAACP field secretary, helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and led voter registration campaigns; yet, Baker is rarely referenced in CRM discourses. Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK), however, is practically synonymous with the CRM, though Ella Bakers work was one of his largest influences. Shirley Chisholm was the first Black U.S. congresswoman to run for president. Efforts to silence her were so great that she received death threats and had to take legal action to ensure her participation in presidential debates. Even Hillary Clintons presidential campaign consistently failed at acknowledging Chisholms influence on her ability to seek the office. Coretta Scott King is regularly relegated to the position of MLKs wife and later, widow. Her story is often silenced because society framed her as a wife and mother, not an outspoken and committed civil rights advocate. In 1984, she wrote a scathing letter detailing the racist actions of Senator Jeff Sessions during his pursuit of politically motivated voter fraud prosecutions and opposing his bid for a judgeship. Coretta Scott Kings voice was silenced when Strom Thurmond, Chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee, refused to share the letter. In 2016, Scott Kings letter resurfaced as Sessions was being considered for the role of U.S. attorney general. This time, however, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read the letter during Congressional deliberations. Warren was ultimately silenced by Rule 19, which sets the conditions for debate in the Senate and prohibits the use of words that (in)directly assign motive or conduct unbecoming of a Senator to another. This silencing was not only of Warrens reading of the letter, but also Scott Kings writing of the letter and commitment to social justice. Interestingly, the media, rather than focusing on the instrumental nature of Scotts letter, repeatedly referred to her primarily as MLKs widow.
The silencing and dismissal of Black women is also embedded within the academic world through intellectual discourses, research, and leadership. W. E. B. DuBois is touted as one of the greatest Black intellectuals and even credited with acknowledging the travails of Black women. DuBois (1888) stated, But what of black women? . . . I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire (p. 185). Yet, Griffin (2000) argued DuBoiss contradictory nature in that he acknowledged Black womens labor yet was dismissive toward Black women as intellectuals. Similarly, in educational research, Black women are treated as props and are consigned to a marginal position rooted in silencing them. McCoy-Lewis (2010) stated,
If we think about the narrative of mass incarceration, we think about the ways in which black men and black boys have been locked up at increasing rates since the 1980s. While this is true, the fastest growing incarceration rate is among Black and Latino women. Moreover, because we have not thought seriously about what is happening with Black girls and Latina girls, we tend to make the issue of incarceration solely male, and we miss the different ways in which we need to be intervening not just for our young boys, but also our young girls. (para. 13)
When considering institutional leadership roles, silencing also occurs for Black women presidents. In 2014, Gwendolyn Boyd was appointed president of her alma mater, Alabama State University. One condition of her presidency was a clause stating, for so long as Dr. Boyd is president and a single person, she shall not be allowed to cohabitate in the presidents residence with any person with whom she has a romantic relation (as cited in Rivard, 2014).
Although her presidency was short-lived due to disagreements with the University Board of Trustees, the clause in some way served as a precursor to the ultimate silencing she faced in her leadership role. These examples demonstrate how Black women are forced into invisibility or an unmarked place in the academy, ensuring their persistent marginalization.
Collectively, the examples in this section provide a perspective regarding why Black womens voices, experiences, and perspectives are rarely if ever associated with institutional leaders sensemaking of institutional change. Societal stereotyping and consistent lack of representation make it overwhelmingly impossible to imagine Black women as worthy beyond their labor. However, institutional leaders who take the process toward institutional change seriously stand to learn a great deal when and if they shift how they frame institutional change and to whom they look as possibility models.
TOWARD APPROPRIATE FRAMING FOR INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE: BLACK WOMEN AS POSSIBILITY MODELS
The previous sections reveal the limited framing and scope of Black women in society. We also discussed the difficulties and contradictions inherent in Black women being viewed as institutional change agents. In essence, constructing a vision of Black women as possibility models requires that institutional leaders do several things. First, they must contend with the uneasy tension of recognizing that previous approaches to institutional change contributed to rebuilding the Masters House. Second, they must grapple with their own silencing and erasure of Black women, while simultaneously benefiting from their labor as students, administrators, faculty, support staff, and custodial staff. In this section, we grapple with the idea of Black women as possibility models in the discourses of institutional change. Rather than present a model, instead we present lessons institutional leaders can learn from Black women that might provide the guidance needed to transform their institutions and advance racial equity.
Black feminist epistemologies assert that for institutional change to be transformative it must be approached intersectionally to actually advance racial equity. Institutional leaders can learn a great deal from scholar, author, and activist Angela Davis. When A. Davis (1998) discussed the prison-industrial complex, she did not present her arguments in a one-dimensional way by focusing, for example, on the imprisonment of Black men. Instead, she took a multidimensional, intersectional approach that unpacked the complexities of imprisonment and how it has been used as a societal panacea designed to cure social ills. She argued, Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business (para. 2). Institutional leaders should be taking a similar approach to campus issues by not simply examining a single issue (as we noted earlier regarding sexual assault), but by examining the oppressive structures that result in the single issues plaguing college campuses. Prominent issues are often viewed through a one-dimensional lens contributing to institutional change efforts that commit intersectional erasure of vulnerable populations in higher education.
For example, there is no shortage of examples to illustrate the racism, sexism, and misogyny promulgated on fraternity row. Unsurprisingly, during the fall semester, especially during Halloween celebrations, intersectional oppression became commonplace on several campuses across the United States. However, when institutional leaders respond, their approach is single axis. A fraternity might be suspended or its members expelled. The national organization to which the fraternity belongs might also intervene and sanction a chapter. However, this one-dimensional approach is an intersectional failure whereby individual students are reprimanded, but the systems of oppression through which their actions were displayed ultimately remain intact and those experiencing victimization are less likely to have their concerns regarding safety and well-being sufficiently addressed. Approaching issues through a one-dimensional lens neither serves institutional leaders well, nor prevents further marginalization of diverse student populations on campus. Moving beyond one-dimensional analyses of campus issues requires those leading colleges and universities to grapple with both micro- and macrolevel concerns. It also involves leaders having a keen sense of their assumptions and why they believe and act as they do. Therefore, it is incumbent upon institutional leaders to be reflective about their roles in challenging oppressive educational environments.
Another lesson worth gleaning from Black women is that the promise of institutional transformation is rooted in authentic, honest, and urgent leadership, particularly when those who oppose you resort to disrespect and diversion to quell the truth. In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Seltzer (2017) explained why university presidents often struggle with issuing apologies, particularly following high-profile missteps (para. 1). While some leaders allow ego to impede their leadership, others are too deeply attached to repeatedly using the same strategies they believe are successful. They may claim they still need more information or, due to legal concerns, may not speak publicly about a campus issue. While each of these points offers some level of validity, institutional leaders might benefit from emulating Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Her time as an elected official has received significant media attention as of late because her constituents believe her to be authentic, honest, and ethical. Moreover, she addresses problems that plague her community from an intersectional point of view and with great urgency. In her 26 years of Congressional service, Waters has been insulted and been subjected to name-calling. However, she remains committed to fighting injustice and has garnered the respect of an entire generation of millennials. Although Waterss context as a political figure differs from the college presidency or senior leadership, the approach she displays can be a valuable model for institutional leaders who fear pushback and are reticent in their approach leading institutional change.
The third lesson institutional leaders should consider is their capacity and willingness to galvanize diverse groups of people and allow space for the voices of those most marginalized to occupy the center. This approach is about looking to the bottom (as mentioned earlier) and realizing that when the needs of the most vulnerable populations on campus are met, all constituents needs can be met. Centering the voices of marginalized groups, such as Black women, by learning about them and their experiences, as well as seeking their counsel and inviting them to participate in leadership and transformation efforts is an approach that every institution should employ. However, taking such a bold step requires leaders to move beyond their limited framing of Black women toward envisioning the possibilities rooted in Black womens epistemologies and methodologies.
Finally, the case of Ruth Simmons Brown, the former president at Brown University and current interim president at Prairie View A&M University, is a telling example of institutional change facilitated by a Black woman. Simmons Brown was the first Black president of an Ivy League university to commission an investigation into the institutions ties to slavery and reparations. Her actions were unprecedented and reflect an attempt to engage in the type of institutional transformation that advances racial equity by divesting in White heteropatriarchy. Simmons Browns actions indeed transformed higher education as many Ivy League institutions began to follow suit. These investigations effectively forced Ivy League institutions at minimum to make amends for their hidden past and histories of exclusion. Although more can and should be done to advance racial equity in higher education, Simmons Browns actions undeniably reflect the possibilities of Black women as institutional change agents.
The lessons we share here by no means represent the full extent to which institutional leaders can learn from Black women as a method of engaging intersectionality toward institutional change. Instead, they serve as a starting point, a blueprint if you will, to encourage institutional leaders to use more intersectional approaches toward institutional transformation that advance racial equity. Even as we write this essay, we also realize that intersectionality alone will not lead to institutional change. Crenshaw (2015) stated, Intersectionality alone cannot bring invisible bodies into view. Mere words will not change the way that some peoplethe less-visible members of political constituenciesmust continue to wait for leaders, decision-makers and others to see their struggles (para. 14). While intersectionality is not a comprehensive remedy, as an approach it can at minimum guide institutional leaders toward fully recognizing minoritized groups that are typically forgotten and erased at the individual level, and the enduring, interlocking structures that prevent institutional change toward justice and equity for these groups and postsecondary institutions.
In crafting this essay, we reflected on the emergent framing about Black women as magic, which poses the question of why so few institutional leaders have attempted to emulate them. The reality is that when Black womens work is misinterpreted as a celebratory trope, Black womens labor and sacrifices are easily dismissed and disregarded. Regardless of how tempting, some might read this article and conclude that hiring a cluster of Black women at colleges and universities is a reasonable strategy toward institutional transformation. This idea is not completely off base in that it would contribute to the needed diversification in the higher education work force by employing Black women. However, our thesis is not simply focused on hiring Black women or expecting Black women to continue laboring and doing the work in which so many institutional leaders should already be engaged. Instead, we encourage institutions to carefully and critically examine Black womens knowledge, accomplishments, contributions, labor, and struggles as a frame for transforming themselves and the institutions they lead. If a commitment to transforming institutions to promote greater racial equity genuinely exists, then different framings that are more robust are neededeven those that emerge beyond, rather than within, the academy. Thus, we are offering a frame through the lens of Black women as possibility models for transformation.
While emulating what Black women have done and continue to do, the responsibility for all is to be cautious. It is particularly important for those who benefit most from White hetero cispatriarchy to earnestly work to avoid rendering Black women invisible by co-opting the work Black women already do. To be sure, there is a difference between emulating Black women while also crediting them and emulating and then erasing them altogether. To close, we offer a quote from Michael Eric Dysons (2004) Why I Love Black Women:
I think it undeniable that we live in a society that has failed to acknowledge the full extent of our debt to [B]lack womens gifts. We have often absorbed their wisdom, sucked their lives, appealed to their insight, depended on their strength, desired their beauty, fed on their hope, hungered for their affirmation, sought their approval, and relied on their faith. Yet we have not paid sufficient tribute to how central black women are to our race our nation, indeed, our globe, as they have fought for freedom with their hearts, minds, and souls. Those of us who have benefited from Black womens love ought to love them back, in the presence of the world. (p. xix)
1. Chase, Dowd, Pazich, and Bensimon (2014) defined minoritized as both the objective outcomes resulting from the historical and contemporary practices of racial-ethnic exclusion as well as the continued social, political, and economic existence of marginality and discrimination, though compositional racial-ethnic parity may have been achieved in particular contexts.
2. Alex Mikulich argues White innocence is where White people claim innocence or deny their participation in the system of racial oppression from which they also benefit.
3. Term coined by Robin DiAngelo to underscore White expectations for racial comfort and an inability to tolerate racial stress, as it triggers anger, fear, guilt, and defensiveness among White people.
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