Panel discusses the future of black women in academia
By biconews On 15 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Christine McCluskey

“Feminism at a Crossroads: Black Women Academics in the 21st Century” was the title of a well-attended panel discussion at Bryn Mawr that featured Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at both Columbia and UCLA, as its keynote speaker.

The panel was organized by Kayan Clarke ’02 as part of Bryn Mawr’s observance of Black History Month, and it was sponsored by the departments of Sociology and History, the Graduate School of Social Work, the Africana Studies Program, and the Feminist and Gender Studies Program. Crenshaw expressed her gratitude for being invited, for the first time in 14 years of giving speeches, to talk about black women at a Black History Month Event.

Crenshaw, who is also the author of Critical Race Theory: A Reader and who worked on Anita Hill’s legal team in her sexual harassment case against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, talked of the dangers of making race and gender “mutually exclusive.” She argued that discrimination against black women exists, but is not recognized as distinct from the problems black men and white women face.

“It took a long time for me to realize that our understanding of racism had been gendered as a male experience,” she said. In studying slavery and police brutality, she said she saw that the gender of the victims studied was always male.

At the same time, gender discrimination is seen as only pertaining to white women. Crenshaw said disproportionate attention is paid to black men rapists when their victims are white, rather than black, women, and that when black women are raped they often don’t report it for fear of perpetuating stereotypes.

Laws against rape and sexual harassment would not have been passed, said Crenshaw, without the argument that rape doesn’t just happen to what she calls “low-value women”: poor women from the inner-city (understood as black). Instead, Congress responded to the idea of “it could

be your wife”: the uppermiddle class, suburban white woman.

Crenshaw ended her speech with criticism of the current welfare system, saying that it “reflects a trend toward using stereotypes to make stuctural policy changes.” She called for an end to “the use of racism … to drive social policy,” and said that until lawmakers and voters change their mindsets about welfare recipients, the cycle of disadvantage for black women will continue from generation to generation.

After Crenshaw’s keynote speech, the other members of the panel talked of their own experiences as women of color in academia and of their views of Crenshaw’s theory. The

panelists were Professor Mary Osirim, chair of Bryn Mawr’s Sociology department and past head of the College’s Africana Studies program; Professor Juana Rodriguez of Bryn Mawr’s

English department; Professor Cythia Glover of the department of Sociology at Villanova; and Professor Linda-Susan Beard, who teaches in Bryn Mawr’s English department. Professor Sarah Willie, a Haverford alumna who teaches Sociology at Swarthmore and is chair of Swarthmore’s Black Studies Program, acted as mediator.

Osirim talked about stereotypes students have about their black women professors: students see them as mother figures, as “superwomen,” or as lacking legitimate authority. The latter idea is a result of the “she was just an affirmative-action hire” attitude students may take toward their black women professors, Osirim said.

Rodriguez shared her personal experience as a “superwoman” professor at Bryn Mawr. Because of her status as a queer professor of color here, she said she is frequently called upon to help students or student groups dealing with sexual orientation and/or race, so much so that she doesn’t have time to work with everyone she’d like to. She and professors like her find that their commitments to such specialized causes, while rewarding, take so much time they aren’t able to work on more visible committees for general purposes. “I keep hearing, ‘Oh, we’re so glad to have you!’” she said, because so many people and groups welcome her as a mentor not to be found in any other member of the faculty.

“How does the inclusion of voices from the margins empower feminism?” asked Glover, who focused on the inclusion of black women in feminism. She described herself as a “neowomanist, without a ‘feminine mystique’,” and called for attention to “ways we can build bridges between black and white women in academia.”

Finally, Beard spoke of the experiences of black women in slavery, agreeing with Crenshaw that we are “preoccupied with slavery as a male-gendered thing.” Only 10-15% of slave narratives are written by women, Beard said, which contributes to the concentration on men in slavery. But the problems of women in slavery deserve attention, she said, because they are different from the problems of men in slavery and so cannot be understood by studying only the experiences of the men. Women running away with screaming babies, women as “baby-making machines on plantations” - these are not addressed in the slave narratives written by men. Beard ended by lauding the “historians and novelists who make themselves the voices of the silent women before them.”

Among the questions raised by the audience after the panelists spoke was one about the possibility of an Ethnic Studies department at Bryn Mawr. Rodriguez, who has a Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from Berkeley, answered it by saying she would rather see “serious curricular interventions that address race, gender, and class.” She saw a problem in creating a separate department for the study of these issues.

Sarah Dick ’02, who is minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies, said she came to the discussion because she’s interested in transnational feminism. “I’m familiar with the issues… it was seeing my professors talking about their everyday experiences” that was helpful to her, she said.

“I became very aware of how unaware I am about black women’s issues… for example, issues of public policy,” said Rickquel Tripp ’02. “I need to get out of my little bubble.” Tripp also agreed with Dick about how valuable hearing about the experiences of her professors was.

Roshan Musa ’02, who is a member of Sisterhood, Bryn Mawr’s support group for black students, said she agreed with Beard that “it’s important to pass on to our daughters what we have been through or else it’s all for naught.”

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