Black Faces in White Spaces: Unearthing the Racialized and Gendered Experiences of Black Women Residential Assistants

A. Hardaway

Ayana Hardaway

Banana found on door handle of black students’ dorm; White Student charged with contaminating Black roommate’s belongings with bodily fluids; “We’re really scared”: Students on edge as racial slur found on campus.

These headlines represent several of many news headlines which have surfaced over the last year representing the types of racially charged incidents occurring on college campuses nationwide. During the tumultuous presidential campaign leading up to the most recent election in 2017, the United States experienced an uprising in domestic discriminatory and racial attacks. These occurrences resulted in an eruption of violence, murders, and protests, which were recorded and streamed on social media. Inevitably, such occurrences also affected U.S. universities across the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. Additionally, college-specific data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, suggests the election itself played a role in the influx of reported cases. Incidents on campuses have included physical harassment, microaggressions, vandalism accompanied by racial symbols or slurs, and hate speech. Such occurrences have resulted in Black students, and other historically marginalized groups on campuses, to cope by drawing on various methods of resistance; such as staging protests on campus, and raising their voices when slighted.

When incidents like these take place within residential living communities, Resident Assistants (RAs) typically stand at the front lines. RAs are tasked with the responsibility of upholding inclusive and safe spaces where students live while having the ability to recognize a crisis and follow proper university protocol to manage that crisis. As a former RA at a predominantly White institution (PWI), I was also on the front lines and can recall feeling challenged and having my authority questioned, mostly by my White residents. It was unbeknownst to me at the time if the push-back I was experiencing was because I was a woman, because I was Black, or both. These experiences occurred over a decade ago and caused me to wonder: What are the current experiences of Black women RAs who need to support others while experiencing multiple forms of oppression themselves as a result of their leadership role, race and gender?

After consulting the higher education literature, here’s what I discovered:

Research on Black RAs is Limited: Currently, educational scholarship questioning how African American students navigate racism on college campuses as part of their leadership roles are underexplored. Furthermore, scholarship centering Black women employed in the RA role are explored even less. Shaun Harper’s 2011 study on the experiences of Black male RAs at PWIs confirm that while RAs are provided with the tools to address common challenges, “there are problematic, race-specific others that have gone undisclosed in previous research and consequently unaddressed in residence life departments.” Overall, most of the published research on the experiences of RAs documents raceless accounts of challenges faced by RAs. 

RAs are Undertrained: A great deal of responsibility and risk come hand in hand with being an RA. Research has acknowledged the ways in which RAs, who are some of the most important employees in higher-ed, are often the most undertrained. As a result, traditional RA training is primarily focused on providing strategies to help students address commonly known challenges within their residence halls. Subsequently, conflict addressing issues of racism are avoided. The research which centers the experiences of Black students complicates these challenges and only confirm that there is more to be learned within residence life departments. Given the current racial tensions on campuses, more research on the racialized experiences of RAs are warranted for institutions to provide the trainings needed to support Black students serving in these roles.

Black Women RAs Need Support: In their 2017 study, which explored the intersectional experiences of Black women RAs, Ericka Roland and Vonzell Agosto’s findings alluded to the challenges students face on campus due to the shift in the nation’s political and racial climate. Specifically, the study reported that an increase in campus racial microaggressions became more visible after the killings of unarmed Black men and the Black Lives Matter movement. Black women RAs reported feeling that due to their gender and race, they struggled with facilitating dialogue around current events and racial issues with White residents.

Black women college students share a collective history of discrimination and marginalization within systems of higher education. Unlike their Black men and White women counterparts, these women share a unique social location in their racial and gender identity where they experience multiple types of oppression from dominant groups and the target groups in which they are socially assigned. My research seeks to unpack these intersections for Black women RAs.

While my current research explicitly explores these experiences at PWIs, my future research agenda seeks to explore the experiences of Black women RAs at HBCUs (another area which has been underexplored within the higher education literature). HBCUs are experiencing a surge in enrollment. According to Marybeth Gasman, Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, freshman enrollment is up 40% at HBCUs due to the recent national episodes of racial unrest. HBCUs often highlight their ability to create inclusive campus climates through cultivating meaningful relationships between faculty, staff, and students which enhance student retention and success. Black feminist scholars refer to this sense of nurturing and cross-familial patterns of care as “othermothering.” While HBCUs may offer a more inclusive campus than their PWI counterparts, some scholars suggest that sexism continues to be pervasive, and embedded within institutional practices at HBCUs. In her article entitled “Addressing Gender Issues in the Historically Black College and University Community: A Challenge and Call to Action”, Florence Bonner from Howard University explains that “In terms of barriers to promotion, exclusion from the curricula, a chilly climate in the workplace and classroom, and sexual harassment, African American women face the same obstacles at HBCUs as they do at PWIs.” Such findings would indicate that while Black undergraduate RAs at HBCUs might experience less racially charged microaggressions and conflict than their PWI counterparts, they might experience a heightened degree of gender-based discrimination from men, who also identify as Black.

In order for postsecondary administrators and educators (at PWIs and HBCUs alike) to retain, support, and improve the unique experiences of these women, understanding the gendered and racialized realities of their experiences are crucial.

Ayana Tyler Hardaway is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Policy, Organizational, & Leadership Studies in the College of Education at Temple University. Under the advisement of Dr. James Earl Davis, she is conducting a critical, qualitative study on the experiences of Black undergraduate women RAs within a PWI. Ayana’s primary research interests include exploring the intersections of race and gender within Black women, and marginalized groups in college settings, cultural identity, and contemporary social movements on college campuses. Ayana has previously served as a Research Assistant on a Community Based Research Project with primary and secondary schools in collaboration with the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Ayana also holds several professional memberships in organizations such as AERA, ASHE, and PA-NAME.

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