The Challenges of Being in Academia from a Black Feminist, and How She Has Addressed Them
Sherie Randolph, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and former AAUW American Fellow, recently published the first comprehensive book on Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, a civil rights activist, black feminist, and lawyer. Since Randolph was a 2005–06 AAUW American Fellowship recipient, we celebrated her success when the book received glowing reviews and was even chosen for Essence magazine’s 7 Books by Black Authors to Read This Fall.
Randolph was first introduced to black feminism, which she defines as “a living, dynamic force for social change, political involvement, and intellectual labor,” as an undergraduate student at Spelman College in the 1990s. Spelman (a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Georgia) afforded her the opportunity to attend lectures by Pearl Cleage and Toni Cade Bambara. Many of her teachers were other black feminists, such as Gloria Wade Gayles and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Her studies at Spelman led her to pursue a doctorate degree in history with a focus on Afro American studies at New York University, and later to enter academia, focusing on black feminist theory.
However, navigating academia as a woman of color researching black feminism — a widely misunderstood topic — has not been without its challenges. Randolph mentions that often women of color “are dismissed by their colleagues, students, and even the staff.” She recalls having been mistaken for the receptionist by colleagues and being “constantly called the name of the only other young black woman faculty member in [her] department.”
Despite these challenges, Randolph has found (and below shares) ways to succeed as a woman of color and feminist in academia.
1. Don’t rely solely on publications; build personal relationships, too.
For many people of color in academia who have decided to focus on controversial or less popular areas of study, the old adage “publish or perish” is not always a sufficient guide. In Randolph’s opinion, it is also important to establish and maintain a wide circle of relationships in your department. This allows colleagues to better understand and appreciate your work. In Randolph’s experience, this is especially important because “sometimes even when you publish in the established journals and with the presses that the mainstream academy approves of, your work on feminism, queer theory, [or similar subjects] is often not fully understood or prized by your colleagues.” This misunderstanding can impact how your research is received, what you are paid, and how your courses are valued.
2. Create and find accepting spaces.
Finding an accepting space where you can build relationships, get advice, and share experiences can be crucial to personal and professional growth. One such space that Randolph found and has utilized over the years is the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. She says that the organization is a great place for any woman of color to start their search. “They have a great team that helps you continue to write and research when you are often one of the only persons of color in your department or field, or when your research is not fully understood and appreciated by your department or university.”
3. Find supporters!
Randolph notes that having genuine supporters of your work is invaluable. She proactively garnered support for her work from other colleagues at her university, including AAUW alumna Tiya Miles. These supporters “read my work, advocate for me, and encourage me to have a balanced life both inside and outside of the field.”
The support that may have started it all, Randolph says, came in the form of an AAUW American Fellowship. “Without AAUW’s support I would not have finished [my] dissertation on time” or crafted a strong enough study to enter the job market competitively. “It was a great honor to receive the AAUW fellowship,” she goes on. “It gave me a win at a time when I needed to feel that other scholars appreciated and understood my work and that I was not alone in valuing black feminism as a field of study.”
Listen as author and AAUW fellow Sherie Randolph discusses her book about this leader in the black power and feminist movements.
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