Supporting Black Women in Higher Education

One of my motivations for pursuing a career in higher education stemmed from my personal experiences as a first generation college student. My path was anything but linear. There were academic and personal challenges that created barriers to attempting to obtain a bachelor’s degree. My first try was right out of high school at the University of Cincinnati. I didn’t have the best experience academically and I struggled connecting with people because I was home most weekends (not my choice). Once I left, I thought it would be easy to get back to any university. The day I went back to Cincinnati to turn in my dorm keys, I knew I messed up. I let the fears and opinions of others keep me bound to home. After that, any attempt at getting back into college or paying for college became a huge struggle. I eventually found my way and the rest is history.

By the time I got to my second master’s degree program, I was in love with higher education as a potential career. I was at the University of Michigan and all the things I was involved with, the people I met, and the projects I worked on were so inspiring. When the position I currently have opened up, I was very excited for several reasons. I had the opportunity to teach a class which was always a dream of mine. I would work in higher education, have access to resources and attend lectures. I would also have the opportunity to support students who were like me – students who didn’t need a ton of support, performed well academically, but needed a nudge to see their own potential.

When I started my job, I was very excited to be in higher education and experience all that it had to offer. Reality quickly set in and I realized that systemic and institutional oppression and racism don’t disappear just because people have degrees or are attaining degrees. I was naive in believing that higher education meant people would be open to new ideas. That wasn’t, and isn’t, the case. It’s been my experience that racism and oppression may be even more prevalent in higher education because people get stuck in their own way and uphold white supremacist ideologies based on the pressure of board members or fear of litigation. I’ve been reading about diversity initiatives failing and people speaking out about it. It’s not for a lack of trying, but because we can’t focus only on celebrations while neglecting opportunities to make systemic change that can disrupt racist thinking.

I felt like I made a huge mistake based on the lack of support I received at work. There were times I felt like the experiences I had were individual to me and not a symptom of the historically exclusive. racist institution of higher education. Based on research I’ve done in the past, I’m aware how difficult it is to prove racism because it can be dismissed as a misunderstanding or an individual occurrence. As a Black woman, I felt completely invisible. We are already misunderstood, unprotected, and violated by just trying to live and exist in society. Black women are at a disadvantage in society due to the barriers we face, including but not limited to systemic racism, sexism, limited access to education and healthcare, unequal pay and job opportunities, and societal stereotypes and biases. These barriers can impact their personal and professional lives, as well as their overall well-being. Our mental health can impact the work we do, how we engage with colleagues, and our interactions with our friends and families.

Having experienced the barriers I addressed and trying to find my identity as a professional in higher education, I was excited to see a lecture titled “Black Women and Enduring Possibilities in Higher Education” by Dr. Lori Patton Davis presented at my institution. Throughout the lecture, Dr. Patton Davis spoke about the lack of empathy and respect, and unjust treatment towards Black women. She discussed how the work and contributions of Black women are miscredited in higher education and other fields. There were also points about the expectation of Black women to work by serving others and working without complaint, referring to Black women as mules of the world. I believe we do expect Black women to live up to the stereotypes that we place upon them because it makes people comfortable and continues to devalue Black women. To value Black women means you’d have to contend with their humanity, and I don’t believe people have the willingness to do so because it would mean treating them equitably and releasing the stereotypes of being strong, angry, and commodified for society’s benefit.

As a Black woman, I felt seen and heard. I wonder why it’s so hard for others to acknowledge the humanity of Black women. The concepts that were presented in the lecture discussed how Black women have much to contribute to society but their contributions are often forgotten, not discussed, or dismissed. One last point that I’ll mention that stood out to me included the notion of the possibility of Black women being treated as human. Black women are trendsetters, community leaders, advocates, changemakers, and creatives that prove to be blueprints for many of the trends and culture shifts that we experience in society.

If you’re in higher education and you’re reading this, it is my hope that you sit with what you’ve just read, find stories about Black women authored by Black women, and listen to Black women. Listen with intention and to provide support. Remember that Black women are not for your consumption. Black women are not commodities to be explored, but people who are to be respected. If you’re wondering what to do at this point, here are a few tips to help you along the way.


Here are some ways to support black women in higher education:

  • Advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus.
  • Support black women-led organizations and events.
  • Mentor and sponsor black women students and faculty.
  • Educate yourself and others on the unique challenges faced by black women in higher education.
  • Encourage and support black women to pursue leadership roles.
  • Hold institutions accountable for addressing issues of discrimination, bias, and inequity.

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