Count Me In: Valuing, Embracing and Affirming the Lives of Black Women in Higher Education

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Ashley Hazelwood

“You just slammed my head to the ground. Do you not even care about that?” screamed 28 year-old Sandra Bland. The young Black woman was ripped out of her car on the way to her new job, slammed to the ground, and arrested as she screamed for help. Less than 72 hours later, she was found dead in her jail cell. Sandra’s offense? She failed to use the turn signal in order to change lanes.

Sandra Bland’s experience is not unique. It represents the fact of being a Black woman in the United States, where women like fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton are slammed down and forcefully restrained by police because some believe Black kids should return to their “section 8 public housing.” It joins cases like the shooting of innocent bystander Rekia Boyd, a Black woman shot and killed by Officer Dante Servin who fired in Boyd’s direction thinking he saw a gun that actually turned out to be a cell phone.

Is being a Black woman unacceptable in the United States? And, as this blog post will address, what about the lives of Black women in higher education? What can we do to ensure these lives are protected, acknowledged, and supported?

As a Black woman pursuing a doctoral degree in higher education, I am most concerned with hastening the critical shift that must occur to drastically reform the paradigm of the Black women college experience. Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), are in a privileged position to respond to this challenge simply because they serve a large percentage of Black women in college. These institutions must capitalize on the valuable access they provide to Black women.

In order to fully embody the critical narrative of Black women, I took to interviewing and discussing these topics with senior level Black women administrators in higher education. What these women shared was extremely profound. While not an exhaustive list, the following points explore what I summate to be the major challenges facing Black women, while also suggesting critical steps MSIs might consider instituting in order to solve these issues.

The Right to Choose and Assign Value to Ourselves. Black women are often forced to choose amongst the most salient aspects of our identities—womanhood or Blackness. Oftentimes, these identities are pitted against one another. In spaces of higher education, Black women are pressured to assume one identity over the other by their peers, professors, or institutionalized policies and practices. Such environmental pressure neglects the fact that identity for Black women is intersectional and fluid. The feminist and social activist Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as Black-American author bell hooks, eloquently addresses this challenge in her classic piece Ain’t I A Woman: “Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women’s rights because we did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of our identity. Racist, sexist socialization had conditioned us to devalue our femaleness and to regard race as the only relevant label of identification. In other words, we were asked to deny a part of ourselves—and we did.”

Dr. Kimberly Lowry, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Success at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas suggests that MSIs can create a safe space for Black women to be vulnerable but feel supported. The implementation of Sistah circles, mentor groups, learning communities and service learning projects were among many of the helpful support mechanisms offered by Dr. Lowry.

For Us, BY Us. Systemic change must occur to address the unjust policies and practices affecting Black women. These policies and practices must be turned on their heads and dismantled in order for transformative change to occur. One administrator interviewed for this project at Dillard University offered critical insight into the systematic changes that must be enacted in order to circumvent the en masse devaluation of the Black women. She explained, “In the past two Presidential elections, Black women led all demographic groups in voter turnout, while remaining underrepresented in elected offices. Shockingly, for 15 consecutive years not one Black woman has held a seat in the U.S. Senate. Black women should chant the Patrick Henry adage: “No Taxation without Representation.””

These comments demonstrate the importance of Black women being groomed for positions of political influence. MSIs should begin this process by establishing curriculums and learning experiences geared toward political careers. Dillard University has begun the transformation process by establishing a center dedicated to pre-law and public interest positions such as mayors, judges and prosecutors. At Dillard, the majority of students groomed to take advantage of the center’s political focus are women of color, many of whom are Black women. The promotion of such a center has empowered Black women to explore and pursue political career fields in which they have not traditionally been encouraged. Nonetheless, holding seats of political prominence can impact everlasting change for Black women.

It Takes More Than A Village. There are few to no campaigns, projects, or events that champion the needs of Black women at large. While there are small pockets of individuals doing this work there must be a greater national focus and attention given to Black women. Furthermore, in order for Black women to gain the leverage and support needed to succeed in college and abroad, there must be a network of allies established to push the cause forward. Latino men and women, white men and women, Black men, members of the LGBTQ community and many other constituents are desired and needed advocates.

In my discussion with Jade Perry, Coordinator of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University and contributing writer for online/print platforms such as Heed Magazine and ForHarriet.com, she suggests college campuses need to be more proactive in advocating for Black women in academia. She says, “That might look like individual meetings with students. That might look like hosting programs and forums to talk about some of these pressing issues. That might look like education, training, and deeper collaboration with colleagues who are charged with campus safety. That might look like pushing the conversation forward on an administrative level. At the end of the day, institutions and individuals have to ask the question: What can I do from where I am?”

These approaches suggest that everyone can contribute to the solution by working to bring justice to Black women by establishing a sound commitment to the support of Black women within the various environments in which they reside.

Special Note: A sincere thank you to Black women everywhere as well as those who contributed greatly to the completion of this article. Without your voices and your truths, this piece would not have been possible. Special recognition goes out to Dr. Kimberly Lowry, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Success at Eastfield College, Dr. Lupita Rasheed, Director of Development at Richland College, Dr. Toby Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Georgia Southern University and Jade Perry, M.Ed, Coordinator of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University.

Ashley Hazelwood is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas Graduate School of Education and a former summer intern at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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