Structural Racism and Isolation in Academia, 1970–2020

Solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Race


Since its inception in 2006 by community activist Tamana Burke, the Me Too Movement has galvanized millions. Inspired by this crusade for gender equity and the eradication of sexual abuse, women, transgender people, children, and gay and heterosexual men in recent years have empowered themselves by giving testimonials about their mistreatment, including domestic abuse, rape, incest, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. As such, these survivors not only call attention to these horrible offenses, but quite often they demand justice. This transformation, without question, has reframed the notion of self-worth among the survivors of these despicable abuses. Using a similar mode of operandi, this proposed session looks closely at racism as an ongoing and salient reality in contemporary America, one that affects the lives of millions daily. The roundtable specifically examines racism’s hold on scholars in academe, especially within the humanities and social-sciences academy. Racism is hardly a new phenomenon. Like W. E. B. Du Bois’s quandary over “the problem of the color line” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) more than a century ago, this academic session recognizes that racism remains a pressing difficulty. This panel therefore attempts to stimulate discussions about the ways in which racism affects and alters the lives of scholars teaching in academic departments nationwide. This session attempts to move academic disciplines toward a rediscovery and acknowledgement of this problem for the purpose of self-healing. Like the victims of sexual abuse and violence, the recipients of structural racism are affected in a myriad of ways. As well, through their experiences they learn coping techniques in an effort to resist and survive their quagmire. Women of color in the twenty-first century, according to historian Stephanie Y. Evans, represent 2 percent of all tenured faculty at United States institutions of higher education, while men of color comprise 8 percent of tenured professors. How do people of color as academics navigate the waters of higher education? What relationships do they depend upon in their daily interactions with students, colleagues, staffers, and the community? Do these historians see racism as a hindrance to their upward mobility? If so, how do they rise above such hostilities and disillusionment? How do these academics deal with these encounters daily and remain objective, diligent, and outstanding as degree-trained historians. Finally, does racism lead to isolation among this subgroup of professors? Do women and men of color rely on isolation as a mechanism of survival? Does isolation, at the same time, cause conundrums for these professionals of color? Relying on the voices of women scholars of color, this panel addresses institutional inequity as an ongoing impediment as well as studies isolation as an appropriate or inappropriate response to this reality. Some utilize isolation to hold negativity at bay in order to remain productive and active. Europeanist and Americanist Nupur Chaudhuri reflects on one of the most isolating periods of her adult life. Dr. Chaudhuri in “‘Just Because Your Husband or Dad Has a Ph.D., We Have to Give You a Ph.D.’: An Indian Woman’s Journey towards the Ph.D.,” reflects on a painful vivid memory. As she prepared for her dissertation defense at her Midwestern public university, the young Indian national faced numerous attacks on her self-esteem, intellect, and culture. Not even the illness of her mother back in India could erode the onslaught of racism.Others rely on their own networks inside and outside their institutions and successfully interweave positive images of self-awareness, self-expression, and self-love, even while relying on some form of isolation for survival purposes. Dr. Joan Cartwright, an influential jazz and blues artist, communication studies scholar, and business marketing executive, despite her inability to secure fulltime teaching employment in her home state of Florida or elsewhere, has soared as a musical artist, writer, and motivational speaker. In “No Work for Black PhD Women,” Prof Cartwright examines racial exclusion in higher education. Her response to racism includes institution building from the inside out—institutions that ensure the feasibility and success of Black women.Many, on the other hand, artfully refrain from complete seclusion, instead seeing this mode of survival as harmful to their productivity and presence in higher education. Dr. Bernadette Pruitt, has delicately crossed the landmines of race at her institution and within her community, even while continuously sensing that isolation, whether welcomed or not, remains a major component to her existence as an African-descent scholar whose roots begin in West Africa, the American South, and the streets of Detroit, Michigan. In “The Double Consciousness of a Beautiful Soul in Higher Education,” Pruitt discusses her ultimate destiny of pursuing a more balanced approach to living as a Black woman in higher education—one that celebrates both her Blackness and other heritages while, at the same time, understanding and sharing with the world the ways in which Black culture and consciousness bring essence and success to society, including academe on the whole. Scholars who use this model find waysto connect with colleagues, even condescending and insensitive coworkers, to build lasting intellectual connections and political alliances in order to remain prolific. These academics also remain true to their inner selves, even relying on the sustainability of isolation. The session hopes to inspire continued dialogues among scholars in general, especially academics of color, on this very important topic. The author of this proposal does remain hopeful that ongoing conversations and publications will move theacademy closer toward eradicating structural inequity forever. 

Papers Presented

“Just Because Your Husband or Dad Has a Ph.D., We Have to Give You a Ph.D": An Indian Woman’s Journey towards the Ph.D.

This paper describes how some faculty members of the history department where I earned my terminal degree decades earlier humiliated me and tried to keep me isolated from the rest of my fellow graduate student peers at Kansas State University. What I know now, if I knew it then, is that I could have sued them for harassment. Moreover, when the majority of the graduate students saw that I had been treated badly they also stopped talking to me. Then to make matters worse, my mother suffered a heart attack in the fall, so during the winter break I wanted to go home, but the committee insisted that I should defend my thesis, which I did and, regrettably, they failed me. They wanted to make some corrections to the doctoral thesis. Then in the spring semester they refused to set the date for my defense because the committee members were too busy to give me the defense. Fortunately, the Graduate School at my institution forced the committee to give me the defense. After they passed me, none of them said a word—they just walked out. One of the things I will always remember is that I was told if you are brown- or black-skinned, you really don’t understand the mind-set of Europeans. Just that statement alone made me determined that I would study modern European history as well as publish in this area. This painful life experience is still guiding my research, teaching, mentoring and publications.

Presented By
Nupur Chaudhuri, Texas Southern University

No Work for Black PhD Women

White women continue to dominate the employment roles of women employed in higher education. Black women are rarely seen waitressing, as airline stewardesses, on corporate boards, or as professors in the academy. Colleges and universities (in-class or online) have no problem taking our money, signing us up for financial aid, while knowing well that the cultural, historic policy of their institutions is to avoid hiring us. This is racial discrimination of the highest order. In addition, black women suffer from gender discrimination and those who are middle-aged and older suffer from age discrimination as well. This study shows that at three south Florida institutions—Broward College, Florida Atlantic University (FAU), and Palm Beach State College (PBSC)—black professors make up less than 10 percent of the faculty, while black students are 30 percent of the 147,000 students attending these schools. Consequently, future or new educators, mathematicians, scientists, and business majors are not getting a culturally rounded experience in college. The intent of this study is to devise a proposal to find solutions to this problem, such as formulating a more concerted effort to identify and hire black professors, along with an intensive plan to retain them, which appears to be a huge problem at FAU and PBSC, according to presidents of both institutions. This scholar has already formulated a survey instrument and intends to utilize this as a means to secure honest arguments regarding why this problem persists, especially for African American women.

Presented By
Joan R. Cartwright DBA, Music History, particularly, Women in Music History

The Double Consciousness of a Beautiful Soul in Higher Education

This paper discusses the experiences of one black woman in the Texas academy. Her experiences, often painful but largely joyous, speak to the impact of childhood trauma and social interaction among African-descent people, especially those living in the United States, as well as others of different racial/ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, religions, sexual orientations, and points of view. Although this scholar has achieved the pinnacle of success, she routinely feels isolated among her family, friends, students, church family, and peers. Students, for example, generally ridicule her for her eyesight difficulties, oratory errors, physical appearance, lecture style, and kind nature toward others. Colleagues sometimes dismiss her as unintelligent and “crazy.” Family members often mistake her kindness for weakness and consider her eccentric views of life as abnormal. She even ruffles the feathers of supportive friends, colleagues, who see her vested interest in interracial reconciliation and intraracial uplift as foolhardy, contradictory, and naive. Although a member of the Christian faith, the historian believes strongly in the idea of a single God who speaks to others in many ways and through numerous religious perspectives. What concerns the historian most of all is her inability to separate her historical subject from the world she resides in daily. She feels strongly about what W. E. B. Du Bois described a century ago in The Souls of Black Folk as the double-consciousness of blackness. According to Du Bois, African-descent Americans lived as blacks and celebrated their identity while, ironically, despising themselves and each other for their darker hues, hair textures, vernacular, cultures, past histories, and ancestral homeland. Much of these contradictory views stemmed from their ongoing interactions with the larger society that, with few exceptions, socially, culturally, and financially marginalized them and had done so in numerous ways for centuries. This confusing state of being—loving one’s self while hating one’s self based on the ways others treat and define African-descent people—remains at the core of the author’s life quagmires. Do these life-style actions point to an individual’s eccentric character or to institutionalized lines of demarcation based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and class? Can these ongoing internal battles be corrected? Can African-descent people transform their stagnant communal state of being? Should successful blacks remain committed to solving these problems? Do all blacks suffer from these issues? The author hopes this first step will stimulate dialogue and encourage other self-reflections, perhaps to begin ongoing conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and class among black people within the academy, and as a teaching tool for others, especially the next generation of future scholars and human beings.

Presented By
Bernadette Pruitt, Sam Houston State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, University of California, Santa Barbara

Presenter: Joan R. Cartwright DBA, Music History, particularly, Women in Music History

Presenter: Nupur Chaudhuri, Texas Southern University

Presenter: Bernadette Pruitt, Sam Houston State University