Where and When I Enter: Intersectionality, African-American Women and Higher Education

As Part of DePaul Women’s Network Women of Culture Series, DWN, in conjunction with the Office of Institutional Diversity & Equity, and the School for New Learning, had the honor to recently present: “Where and When I Enter: Intersectionality, African-American Women and Higher Education”, featuring Dr. Venus Evans-Winters, Associate Professor of Education at Illinois State University. Read on for DWN Communications Team Member Dorothy Griggs’ recap of the event. 

By Dorothy Griggs

Dorothy Griggs
DWN Communications Team Member Dorothy Griggs

Dr. Evans-Winters is an Associate Professor of Education at Illinois State University in the department of Educational Administration and Foundations, and is a Faculty Affiliate with Women & Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies.  Dr. Evans-Winters’ research and teaching interests are the sociology of education, educational policy, critical race theory and feminism.  Dr. Evans-Winters is also a therapist and the author of the book, Teaching Black Girls – Resiliency in Urban Classrooms.

An energetic speaker with an infectious laugh and the uncanny ability to make her audience feel more like kinfolk than strangers, Dr. Venus Evans-Winters began her talk by showing a YouTube video of Nina Simone on stage singing, “Four Women,” where she sang about four of the many varied and distinct histories of African-American women.  While the song itself is over forty years old, it speaks to the intersectionality of racism, sexism and classism that still exists today.

Dr. Evans-Winters spoke about some of the issues faced by African-American women in higher education.  Most are well known and well-documented:

  • Fewer African-Americans receive tenure
  • Inequity in pay
  • Only allowed to teach race and gender specific classes
  • The number of diverse faculty members not keeping pace with the increased diversity of the student body

She went on to speak on issues that are not as obvious – mini abrasions, she called them:

  • Walking into a room of your peers and it being assumed that you are the support staff
  • Ideas and opinions devalued
  • Personal choices of how to wear one’s hair negatively impacting evaluations, which in turn, negatively impacts opportunities for tenure
  • When speaking up, the risk of  being labeled an “angry Black woman”

When looking to quickly gauge a company’s values and culture, many African-Americans know that it is often as simple as looking around for someone who looks like them.  Do they span the ranks of the organization from the top down, or are they all clustered near the bottom?  The color and gender of the top hierarchy of any organization speaks louder than its motto or mission statement.

Dr. Evans-Winters stated that no one should be the only “one.”  If a company recruits an African-American executive, there should be other African-American executives for her to be able to elicit support, from the perspective of being one of the few.  The same thinking applies to students.

Dr. Evans-Winters spoke on how the Eurocentric, privileged and elitist culture of higher education is vastly different from the cultural many African-Americans have grown up in.  And while most Blacks are well versed in the culture of White Americans, the larger population knows very little about the psyche of African-Americans, due in part to the fact that the little research that is conducted deals primarily with the pathologies and deficiencies of that population.  Dr. Evans-Winters believes that to better understand African-Americans, research would be better served by focusing on the resiliency and strength of character that allowed African-Americans to rise from the depths of slavery.

Many African-Americans in higher education feel that they must split their identities and conform to the ideologies and culture of the dominant race in order to be successful.  But wherever people of color go, they bring their history, their culture, and their unique perspective of the world.

A one time practicing therapist, Dr. Evans-Winters talked of how there was never any psychological therapy given to Blacks when slavery ended.  None was offered following the mass lynching of black men or, in more recent history, following the abolition of Jim Crow.  Black women have learned to lean on one other to overcome these and numerous other hardships and atrocities, the effects of which outsiders cannot begin to comprehend.

To that end, Dr. Evans-Winters advocates that Black women should have a ‘Room of One’s Own,’ where they can create a safe place to share their stories, a place of community to nurture and heal, time to network with one another, and a loving environment with de-colonized images of beauty.

Additionally, women of color need allies from higher-ups, equal pay, students educated in a pluralistic democracy, professional development, and cultural diversity in the work place, with the goal being the humanization of the individual.

Dorothy Griggs is a member of DWN’s Communications team and is the department assistant for the Center for Students with Disabilities at DePaul University.

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