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Women of color in higher education: resistance and hegemonic academic culture.

[Editors' note: University of Michigan graduate student Kristine Molina was an award winner in the 2007 student essay contest sponsored by the National Women's studies Association's Women of Color Caucus. Feminist Collections is pleased to be able to showcase Ms. Molina's scholarly paper in this issue, particularly because it is topically related to a series of book reviews on women in academia that we published a couple of years ago. See especially "Narratives from Women of Color in the Halls of Academe," by Pat Washington, in volume 28, no. 1 (Fall 2006), pp. 1-6; available online at]
  We cross or fall or are shoved into abysses whether we speak or
  remain silent. And when we do speak from the cracked spaces, it is
  con voz del fondo del abismo, a voice drowned out by white noise,
  distance and the distancing by others who don't want to hear. We are
  besieged by a "silence that hollows us." (Anzaldua & Moraga,
  1981, p. xxii)

  Women of color in America have grown up with a symphony of anger, at
  being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive,
  it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of
  humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service
  outside of its service. (Lorde, 1984, p. 119)

Too frequently, women of color feel marginalized, silenced, invisible, or tokenized in institutions of higher education. Too frequently, work that focus on the marginalization of women neglects the particular experiences of women students of color, who must confront marginalization not only because of their race or ethnicity, but also because of other social identities: gender, class, ability, and sexuality. How these social identities intersect is rarely discussed. In fact, the particular lived experiences of women of color are almost nonexistent in research on higher education. The discourses that do exist focus almost exclusively on people of color as distinct and internally homegeneous groups.

Psychological research that seeks to examine the ways in which different women of color experience various forms of social marginality remains, like women of color themselves, virtually invisible. Women of color have essentially been "shut up" and "shut out" of mainstream psychological research (Graham, 1992; Imada & Schiavo, 2005; Reid, 1993; Reid & Kelly, 1994). There is a dearth of psychological research on the effects of marginalization, exclusion, and invisibility in higher education for women of color. Even more scant is research that allows women of color to voice the experiences they confront within institutions of higher education. Moreover, research conducted to date in this area has primarily focused on African Americans (Gay, 2004), but not on other women of color.

In this paper, I locate the experiences of women of color within a feminist psychology framework that takes into account the various ways in which women of color are excluded from spaces of higher education. I ask how feminist theories can, by incorporating an intersectional perspective, standpoint epistemology, and contextualizatiog of experiences, give psychology a different lens through which to examine questions on and of interest to women of color. I believe this theoretical approach to psychological research allows for the creation of new knowledge about women at the intersection of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability. Further, I discuss how contextualizing the experiences of women of color allows for a richer understanding of their lived experienes within the classroom space, and how power shapes forms of exclusion, marginality, and silence within the academy. Finally, I discuss prospects for future research on the experiences of women of color within institutions of higher education.

Contextualizing Experience

Much research has been conducted within the area of education, but in its broadest terms (e.g., standardized tests, racial/ethnic disparities, drop-out rates), much of it has been conducted with little or no contextualization of outcomes. How results are framed is important to our discussion of contextualizing the experiences of women of color within spaces of higher education.

Entman (1995) noted that framing "refers to selecting and highlighting some elements of reality and suppressing others, in a way that constructs a story about a social problem, its causes, its moral nature and its possible remedies" (p. 142). For example, when explaining gender and/or ethnic differences in academic achievement, test scores, etc., researchers rely on averages (means) as their interpretations of differences in outcomes and/or behaviors between men and women or whites and ethnic minority groups, and consequently reinscribe and even engender binaries with their results. In fact, "research that only documents differences between groups offers no understanding of why those differences exist or how they may be atenuated. These then may reinforce (or even create) the public's stereotypes and biases" (Stewart & Jayaratne, 1991, p. 88). Understanding the negative effects that framing/interpretation may have is important, since these interpretations may have real-world implications (e.g., public policy officials taking results as they are framed to support certain of their claims). Thus, statistical data would be more meaningful if examined from a contextual approach--one that takes into account the context from which "data" emerge.

Landrine (1995) has suggested that "behaviors [experiences] have no inherent label or meaning, no matter how obvious, there-on-the-surface, self-evident, and inherent in superficial-mechanical movements such a label and meaning may appear to be. Instead, the label for a behavior [or experience] is to be discovered empirically through a careful analysis of the context in which the behavior [experience] occurs, with this context as part of the behavior's [experience's] name" (p. 83). Thus, it may be that silence on the part of women of color within a classroom takes on a different meaning depending on the context. bell hooks (1989) has noted that "silence is varied and multi-dimensional" (p. 8), and Adrienne Rich has written that "all silence has meaning" (Romero, 2000, p. 306). Indeed, it can signify '"respect for my teachers...' or 'distrust of outsiders,' depending on the social, cultural, and historical context in which the superficial movement 'silence' occurs" (Landrine, 1995, p. 85).

When we define behaviors contextually we are better able to decipher what it is that may really be occurring, rather than neglecting the real meanings behind these behaviors. How does being within a predominantly white and elite institution of higher learning elicit different behaviors from marginalized women? How does their experience of these contexts differ from those of women who are accustomed to residing within these environments (e.g., white, middle- to upper-class, heterosexual women)? These questions are important to ask if we are to understand the experiences of some women in relation to other women, not just in relation to men. In fact, these classroom experiences are analogous to the experience of women of color within the feminist movement. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to center, bell hooks poignantly describes how "they [white, bourgeois women] prefer us to be silent, passively accepting their ideas. They prefer us speaking against 'them' rather than developing our own ideas" (p. 28). The ability of white women to maintain control over other women's voices is grounded within a hegemonic system of dominance that privileges them in their continuation of discourses and practices at the exculusion of non-white women.

Hegemony as a Tool of Exclusion

Issues of power are at the center of the questions posed above. It is not simply about being silenced, about being the only woman of color in a classroom, but about who is privileged within certain spaces--who is entitled to speak--to make her voice heard. It is not women of color who are at the forefront of class discussions, in decisionmaking processes, or in discourses that center around them. In fact, when women of color are encouraged to speak it is usually about their differences, resulting in a tokenism that leaves them feeling more marginalized. hooks, (1990) explains this as a "celebration that fails to ask who is sponsoring the party and who is extending the invitations" (pp. 54-55). The people who usually benefit from these "celebrations" are those who have the privilege not to question their status within the classroom. Further, Anzaldua and Moraga, in This Bridge Called My Back, explain that "in academic and cultural circles, Third World women have become the subject matter of many literary and artistic endeavors by white women, and yet we are refused access to the pen, the publishing house, the galleries, and the classroom" (p. 61). Similarly, Chandra Mohanty (1991) suggests that "Western feminist writing on women in the third world must be considered in the context of the global hegemony of Western scholarship--i.e., the production, publication, distribution, and consumption of information of ideas" (p. 55). Whiteness then exists within a set of power relations that privileges those in the majority while placing those in the lower strata at a disadvantage in various contexts.

We can relate this understanding of hegemony--as a means of silencing, marginalization, and tokenism of women of color in higher education--to Catharine MacKinnon's (1987) argument in Difference and Dominance that "gender might not even code as difference, might not even mean distinction epistemologically, were it not for its consequences for social power" (p. 40). MacKinnon's understanding of how gender is hierarchized." as a result of social power can be applied to an understanding of how race is "otherized." Women of color become racialized subjects within predominantly white classes, and as such, are automatically scripted as racially different. Like gender, race matters in today's society, where women of color make up only 14% of the professoriate (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2001) and racialized subjects occupy the lowest tier of society. Because racialized subjects have less social power, they are unable--unlike white women and men--to change the structures that exert power over them. For example, women faculty of color, "artificially vested in the robes of power with the accompanying markers, degrees, publications, and academic rank ... have little power to control and affect the larger academic environment" (Johnson-Bailey & Lee, 2005). Therefore, we must take into account power differentials within spaces of higher learning (e.g., the academy and classroom).

In fact, Hurtado (1989) explains that women of color do not experience the privileged position that white women are afforded in relation to white men. She argues that this positioning relative to white men is a complex issue that, because it is embedded within ethnic, racial, and class relations, creates a different experience for white women than for women of color; and she explains that this issue does not crop up only in woman-to-woman relationships. This is also illustrated by Audre Lorde (1984), who notes that "the tokenism that is sometimes extended to us [women of color] is not an invitation to join power: our racial 'otherness' is a visible reality that makes it quite clear. For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools" (pp. 118-119). Thus, even though women of color may be invited to participate in higher education and its discourses, their status as women of color will never afford them the choices white women will get from such invitations.

In "The Race for Theory," Barbara Christian shows how power is also related to ways of knowing, as well as to who defines theory and/or what is considered worthy of theorizing--because, as she notes, "the literature of people who are not in power has always been in danger of extinction [and] of co-option, not because we do not theorize, but because what we can even imagine, far less who can reach, is constantly limited by social structures" (p. 344). She also notes that those who have the power are those who can have their work published--and thus be able to be heard. Those in power too can determine which ideas are considered valuable. For example, women of color are seen as "discredited people"; therefore, it is no surprise that our work is also discredited (Christian, 1990). The work of women of color is not given the same praise as that of white men and women in the academy. In fact, our work has been seen as unimportant (APA, 2005).

Exclusion of research by and on women of color "is no mere oversight but a result of the devaluation of this group" (APA, 1995, p. 6). Barbara Christian (1990) calls this a devaluation and intimidation for "the race for theory." Interestingly however, when white people do research on women of color (or people of color for that matter), praise is given to them for conducting "novel" and "groundbreaking" work--even if, as is often the case, similar work has previously been done by women of color themselves. And when we (women and men of color) do such work, it usually results in another form of exclusion, such as having our writing included only in "special editions" (Utall, 1990). Our work is more likely than not to be rejected from mainstream journals, since our scholarship is more likely to go beyond the dominant mainstream disciplinary framework accepted by the academy (Romero, 2000). For example, research has shown that most top scholars in ethnic minority research in psychology are ethnic minority women and men of color, and that most of their works have been published in specialty journals (Graham, 1992; Hall & Maramba, 2001; Reid & Kelly, 1994). Further, research by women of color on women of color is seen as being conducted in self-interest, and thus intellectually weak and suspect, whereas work by white men and women is seen as legitimate (hooks, 1989). When the work of women of color is "recognized," it is through appropriation and tokenization. We face extra burden and frustration in trying to explain our research--the importance we see in it and its implications for a more just and equal society. Through this practice we become social agents within this system of scholarship.

At times, women of color face resource constraints that limit or impede their research agendas. For example, those doing research on marginalized communities often lack access to mentors and scholars doing similar research within their disciplines or institutions or do not have access to those populations because the academy is physically removed from communities of color. When we do find ways to do work on our communities, our work is often trivialized and invalidated. Thus, if women of color in higher education feel passionate about research within their own communities, they know they must be ready to confront further alienation or tokenism (e.g., being the only person in the department doing work on a marginalized group). When they are ready to confront such possible consequences, they must ask themselves what Christian herself asked: "for whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?" (p.343). For many women of color, doing research is a political act. Christian poignantly describes this when she says that "[for] people of color, feminists, radical critics, creative writers, who have make their voices, their various voices, heard, ...literature [or research] is not an occasion for discourse among critics but is necessary nourishment for their people and one way by which they come to understand their lives better" (p.336). Important to this analysis is letting women of color know that our situations within institutions of higher learning are not those of hopelessness, "that [we] can do nothing to break the pattern of domination" (hooks, 1 984), but rather situations that demand that we resist various forms of oppression brought on by the hegemonic world of higher education (i.e., academia).

Incorporating Intersectionality

Crenshaw (1989/1993) coined the term intersectionality, which is often used to describe the intersections of race and gender. The term actually describes much more, however, including the intersections of class, sexuality, ability, language, and so forth. Interestingly, psychological research conducted through an intersectional perspective continues to remain rather neglected, although some psychologists have been doing this type of work for quite some time (Stewart & McDermott, 2004). However, psychology would benefit greatly if an intersectional perspective was used as a model for understanding the simultaneity of social identities in relation to the marginalization of women of color in higher education, as well as the existing power relations within social categories. Gay (2004), for example, listed factors (e.g., lack of culturally relevant academic and social support systems; cultural, racial, ethnic, and social differences; prejudices and discrimination; etc.) that students of color encounter en route to becoming professors in the academy, and identified such factors as forms of marginalization. Gay's work, however, lacks attention to how multiple stigmatized identities (e.g., being poor, a woman of color, and lesbian) intersect to create a qualitatiely different experience en route to the professoriate than do the identities of a white, middle-to upper-class, heterosexual woman. Inequitable treatment can also intensify existing power struggles among women of color and white women (Comas-Diaz & Greene, 1994). In fact, Lorde (1984) claims that "there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives" (p. 138). To assume that women of color are only women or only of color and face oppression in a singular way is to deny them and their experiences as whole. Viewing women's oppression as being intricately linked to other forms of oppression allows us to understand the need for a more complex and multidimensional approach to psychological research on women of color in higher education.

Psychology cannot afford to continue to neglect the strengths of using an intersectional approach to research, because without such an approach, the field fails to capture and recognize the true meaning of its questions and of the people it studies. Acknowledging the complexities that exist in the lives of women of color and the contexts in which they exist is central to an intersectional perspective. "Subjects" literally become subjected to those studying them. Failure to give an accurate representation of their subjects as humans nested within social structures perpetuates the same form of oppression that women of color confront within society (or higher education in our case). Furthermore, Knapp (2005) argues that merely mentioning the need to examine race-class-gender is not enough. Instead, she makes the distinction between using these variables and mentioning them, the latter being what often occurs within psychological research. Researchers generally claim to understand these social identities and mention that these variables should be used in future research, but barely attempt to explore the significance or meaning of intersectionality in their analysis. In fact, psychology has adopted intersectionality as "a formula merely to be mentioned, being largely stripped of the baggage of concretion, of context and history" (p. 255). This type of practice limits the quality of information truly captured through an intersectional approach that is conducted responsibly. Not putting the intersection of social identities into the research means that the field fails to take advantage of the potential this approach can offer.

Psychological studies must move beyond considering intersecting social identities as mere variables waiting for interpretation. The same can be said of the experiences of women of color in higher education. If institutions continue to ignore the meaning that these various social identities carry for women of color, they deny the realities of a group of people who for centuries have been denied agency. To incorporate the intersectional perspective into our psychological research thus means that we take into account not only the experiences of women of color, but also power relations, as well as the context(s) wherein these relations and experiences occur. Because it may be impractical to explore every single social location at the same time, we should incorporate those social identities that we think might intersect with the most relevance with what it is we are studying (Stewart & McDermott, 2004). And although "race, class, and gender [among other social categories]--when intertwined--do not necessarily make for pleasant polite discourse[s]" (Romero, 2000, p. 311), we must allow room for these kinds of discourses to occur.

Through Whose Eyes and Voices: Standpoint Epistemology

Feminist standpoint epistemology posits that a marginalized position provides a unique theoretical vantage point (Collins, 1986), embodies lived experience, and values "otherness" (Harding, 1991). It also stresses the importance of work developed consciously from a woman's (and other marginalized person's) perspective (Hartsock, 1997). Harding asserts that marginalized epistemologies can be empowering and allow for alternate perspectives that challenge beliefs about social categories. For example, Black Feminist Thought is less likely to accept assumptions of universalism; instead, it questions the process of production of knowledge (Collins, 1986). Thus, the marginalized position of women of color can inform research in such a way that their vantage point provides research with rich information and a point of view that cannot be captured otherwise. Equally, Collins (1986) claims that "bringing ... others who share an outsider within status vis-a-vis sociology [psychology in our case] into the center of analysis may reveal aspects of reality obscured by more orthodox approaches" (p. S15). The significance and unique contributions that the "outsider within" status produce are seen through the marginality that occurs in academic settings, where women of color must use their standpoint to generate knowledge that is often neglected. Insight that emerges from experience can lead to more accurate and complex analyses of issues that are relevant and important to people "who have been only the subject, and not the originators" of work that tries to "explain their subjective thoughts, feelings, and behavior to others" (APA, 1995, p. 2). Varying viewpoints are much more likely to prompt different types of questions, and generate new theories and methods, which can lead to the production of new knowledge and conclusions (Rosser, 1990).

Importantly, "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end someone else's oppression" (Combahee River Collective, 2001). Therefore, it is women of color (and other marginalized groups) who must represent themselves. If others do represent them, these works "run the risk of ghettoization" (Mohanty, 1991). For example, women of color are usually portrayed as a singular monolithic group that shares the same oppressions, characteristics, and life experiences. The universalism that is implied in these descriptions does not recognize the heterogeneity and relative disadvantages such as class status that exist even within the group "women of color." Thus, "it is often the experiences and struggles of poor women of color [and other women of color and marginalized groups] that allow the most inclusive analysis" (Mohantly, 2002). The standpoint of these women is less likely (though not always) to reinforce assumptions of universalism.

Speaking Up as a Form of Resistance

"Given the fear of being misunderstood, it has been difficult for black women and women in exploited and oppressed ethnic groups to give expression to their interest in feminist concerns" (hooks, 1984, p.32). This statement illustrates almost exactly how some women of color often feel within spaces of higher learning, where fear of voicing their concerns prohibits them from confronting dominant ideologies. Frustration and annoyance with those who do not hear us, as well as fears of being singled out, of being to kenized, of being the speaker for a whole group, are common experiences--experiences that occur more often than not and that come with significant consequences for the psyches of women of color. However, women of color within circles of higher learning and other academic spheres have learned how to resist hegemonic systems in these institutions. In fact, knowing that one can reject the dominant group's definition of one's reality is in itself "an act of resistance and strength" (p. 92). Had women of color "not exercised their power to reject the powerful's definition of their reality" (p. 92), they might have already fallen victim to the traps put out by the powerful in order to keep them at the lower strata of all institutions. Although power has been kept away from women of color, they can still use their marginalized positions as a vantage point from which to create a liberated voice that allows them to free themselves from a culture of domination (e.g., the classroom, academia, conferences). In fact, hooks (1989) claims that "moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is the act of speech, of 'talking back,' that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject--the liberated voice" (p.9). Inside the doors of institutions of higher learning, women of color must learn to use their liberated voice as that which empowers them to continue to fight the many battles they must confront daily. The power that emerges from these battles is worth every effort to be heard, no matter how emotionally draining or lonely the process may be.

Future Research Within a Feminist Framework

Ideally, psychological research that takes into account the multiple forms of oppression that women of color face within institutions of higher education is preferable to research that neglects critical contextualizations about the experiences of women of color in higher education. Acknowledging that the participation of women of color in higher education may not promote the kind of privileged learning experience that those in the dominant group may have is important, because this may have implications for the assessment of specific barriers to integration of women of color in these spaces. Understanding how women of color often feel silenced within classrooms, conversations, and opportunities within higher education requires us to re-evaluate the way in which we make sense of our findings within these domains. Research on women of color deserves respect and demands to be conducted within frameworks that take into account their particular positions and in an environment that takes for granted their presence and humanness. We should also, as Mohanty (1991) suggested, move beyond Marx's statement that "they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented" (p. 74).

Psychology as a field can no longer be guided by dominant ideologies of normalcy and "difference." A feminist framework offers a paradigmatic shift in the way in which the voices of women of color are heard and given the attention they merit. This framework can guide psychology to the next level of scholarship. In Feminism and Education: Not by Degrees (as cited in hooks, 1984), Charlotte Bunch makes clear how important theory is to us:
  Theory enables us to see immediate needs in terms of long-range goals
  and an overall perspective on the world. It thus gives us a framework
  for evaluating various strategies in both the long and the short run
  and for seeing the types of changes that they are likely to produce.
  Theory is not just a body of facts or a set of personal opinions. It
  involves explanations and hypotheses that are based on available
  knowledge and experience. It is also dependent on conjecture and
  insight about how to interpret those facts and experiences and their
  significance. (Bunch, quoted in hooks, 1984, pp. 32-33)

As a field, psychology has fallen short of allowing women of color to tell their own stories--to voice their lived experiences and represent themselves. By addressing their lived experiences in spaces of higher learning (e.g., the academy, the classroom), women of color are able to question and confront the authoritative discourses they face in such settings. Through the act of "speaking up," they create a counter-hegemony to that which exists in a hegemonic academic culture. Women of color can and should be able to produce knowledge that goes beyond mainstream psychological frameworks. In sum, I believe that by incorporating feminist theories into psychological research on women of color, we can better address the power issues that are inherent in dominant mainstream disciplinary frameworks.


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[Kristine Molina is a doctoral student in the joint program in psychology (personality & social contexts) and women's studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow. She received her B.A. in psychology from Smith College. Her research focuses primarily on the effects of gendered dimensions of general and domain-specific discrimination on the academic outcomes and aspirations of Latina/o adolescents and women of color in higher education.]
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Author:Molina, Kristine
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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