Davis investigated and concluded that no attack had taken place. The white RA charged favoritism by one African American woman to another and took her complaint higher up. Dr. Stacey Miller, director of residence life and Davis’s supervisor at the time, called them together to discuss the deep difference in perceptions.
Did I intimidate you, or do you feel intimidated by me? The two are not the same. “At the end of the day, I see the world very differently than she does,” Davis told WIHE.
Micro-aggressions can leave the recipient wondering if something really happened. “You think you’re going crazy,” Miller said. Not every slight is about race or gender, but many are. Naming your truth brings in the sanity factor.
Wells collected students’ stories about their experiences for her master’s degree research. “Hey, we’re all struggling,” Miller said. She, Davis and Wells discussed how to better support black women to achieve professional success at NASPA annual conference in Chicago in March.
“Girl . . . You in Danger! Navigating the Shark Infested Waters of Student Affairs/Higher Education” is the subtitle of the presentation they put together two years ago, presented twice so far at NASPA and twice at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.
They’re almost always overwhelmed by the numbers who show up each time they offer it. African American women at predominantly white colleges and universities are parched for support and validation that what they’re experiencing is real.
Today Wells is a doctoral student at Morgan State University MD. Davis is director of student life at Whitman College, Princeton University NJ, and starting a doctoral program at Rutgers. And Miller is still at the University of Vermont, “Big Momma” and mentor to African American students and staff.
Behavior changes with context. Most black women report that they’ve shifted to fit in or gain acceptance by white people—changing how they speak, toning down mannerisms and avoiding controversial topics in favor of topics they think interest whites. It’s very tiring. At home you can be relaxed and comfortable, but if you’re large, loud and gregarious you’d better tone it down at work.
“It’s really about making other people comfortable,” Miller said. Many people experience this, including many white women, but it’s especially frequent for black women because of stereotyping. “I’m always seen as intimidating, regardless of how I walk in the room.”
Many also give up parts of themselves to support the success of black men. They downplay their abilities and strengths to make the man look good. Sometimes it results from self-doubt and pressure to fulfill traditional gender roles. Another factor is whether to be a good ally for the sake of all.
“One of you represents all of you,” Davis said. If one African American comes late to a meeting or isn’t prepared, it sets up negative expectations for all. So women have a positive motive to help their men succeed, even if it means not getting the credit. “You’re not always the one in the spotlight but the one doing the work in the background,” she said.
Because they stick out in a mostly white crowd, black women feel pressure to work toward social invisibility, conform and avoid mistakes. To complicate matters, while they’re pushed to become less conspicuous socially, they must struggle to be visible professionally.
They’re likely to be excluded from peer networks and overlooked for promotions. They face less cutthroat competition than in corporate life, but plenty of isolation and lack of support. If they succeed a white man in office, subordinates may question their authority. If there’s another black woman anywhere on campus, everyone confuses the two.
If they’re on faculty, their research subjects may be marginalized. They’re doubly marginalized in student affairs, which is lower than it deserves on the college totem pole. Miller said of student affairs, “We’re not the head on the dog, but we’re not just the tail.”
At age 31, Davis is often mistaken for a student. Last year, new at Whitman College and attending freshman orientation, she was asked if she was a freshman. No, she had to explain, she was the director of student life—the one in charge. “I belong at the big kids’ table,” she said.
Straight white men carry the look of leadership without effort, while black women of equal status and competence struggle for credibility. Miller introduces herself as “Dr.” to prevent pushback. Many studies of unconscious bias confirm that black women need to do more to be considered just as good.
Students of color seek them out. It’s a fine line to figure out how deeply to become engrossed in students’ lives and still maintain an administrative or supervisory role. Rich white kids expect lots of attention because they’re paying high tuition and feel entitled, chewing up more time unless clear boundaries are established early.
While students come to them in droves, they’re isolated and peripheral to colleagues. They get put on lots of committees as token representatives. “We have to work harder. Can we work harder and still have a social life?” Davis asked.
“We have a tendency to work ourselves to the ground,” Miller said. Women tend to take on other people’s needs and put themselves last on the list.
At their workshops at NASPA and NCORE, they offer a toolbox to help African American women deal with these issues in their professional lives. When time allows, they make the sessions participatory and use breakout groups. “It takes on a new life each time we present it. The good value comes from listening to other women’s stories,” Davis said.
They also hope other women of color, white women and men will attend, especially if they supervise black women or work with some as colleagues. Their message to these individuals is that sometimes black women need to be supported a little differently from other women.
Understand their need for mentoring, which they may not always request, and that critical incidents do happen. “When you notice a black woman, understand that her experiences are subtly different from yours,” Miller said.
• Recruit mentors. Mentors matter—formal, informal and peer. Take mentoring wherever you can find it. Your mentors don’t have to look like you; they can be anyone with whom you’re comfortable.
• Build and use a network. Your network can offer you day-to-day support and a sounding board when you’re facing larger decisions, like whether to change jobs or career. “It makes you feel like you matter,” Miller said.
• Find allies. Like mentors, they may be women or men of any race or ethnicity. “You will be surprised about the people who will support you if you reach out,” Miller said.
• Seek out professional development. It’s easy to shortchange yourself; take every chance you can get. If tight budgets keep you from traveling to conferences, look for development opportunities on campus.
• Join or form a sisterhood circle. Miller’s is made up of women of color, including Asians and Latinas. Each meeting has a topic—sometimes one like hair, food or family— that wouldn’t safely arise in a wider professional setting.
• Read, read, read. “One of my frustrations has been not having the language to articulate how I’ve been marginalized,” she said. Following the scholarship related to your experiences will help you give voice to what’s happening.
• Build knowledge, skills and awareness to confront critical incidents. When you get ambushed you can get stuck in the moment, unsure of how to respond. Plan out your strategies to address situations such as profiling, and have the courage and conviction to apply them. Sometimes circumstances force you to be the “angry black woman” on campus but often there’s another way to speak up effectively if you look hard enough.
Expected to be the resident black voice on everything, you can educate white colleagues by choosing whether to engage. Unless the topic pulls your heartstrings, you can say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you look that up?” Talk to your supervisor about it too.
• Create outlets and healthy living. Have a life. Read, watch television or do whatever helps you to balance. Too often, the last thing you take care of is you.
You need not be grateful to have a job. If your school doesn’t value you, maybe it’s time to move on. “When the school gets more from you than you get from it, it’s time to go,” Miller said. Someone else will value you.
If you’ve built a record of leadership and now your main role is getting coffee, use your time in that role to build connections and networks for when you leave because you’ll probably have to leave anyway. Teach someone how to get coffee, for after you’re gone.
One NASPA participant chose to progress in her career by moving outside the US, getting her first senior post in the United Arab Emirates. That gave her the credentials for a job back in North America.
Whether you stay or go, remember that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. Reach out for support.