The Persistence of Institutional Sexism in Africana Studies

Graduation at Nottingham Trent University (Photo: Nottingham Trent University, Flickr).

While institutional racism under the current U.S. administration is identified as being more prominent and therefore more recognizable, institutional sexism, its twin, remains largely overlooked in many institutions.1 Universities, considered the locations for the most advanced thinking and practices on these matters are by no means exempt as they still end up reproducing these societal ills. Black women, often the recipients of these twinned social ills, are the most disadvantaged in these institutional practices. Based on my own ongoing research on pathways to leadership for Black women, I am able to conclude that while we may assume that such inattention to gendered “diversity” is operable at the corporate level, premier institutions of higher learning are also culpable. Harvard University recently asserted its leadership in moving assertively to intervene in this untoward practice with the appointment of four Black women as deans of major colleges. However, reports from colleagues in a number of universities reveal that this is an area that has been left unaddressed in most institutions.

Such is the case at Cornell University, which perhaps has prompted its Provost to engage in a study of diversity and whose report has documented precisely this failing. The case of Cornell’s Africana Studies Department, which I know best having been on its faculty for the last ten years, demonstrates precisely how this pattern of institutional sexism continues. While it would be considered reprehensible if for fifty years of any unit’s history, there appeared to be no woman capable, groomed, or prepared to function as its department chair or director and therefore with the ability to impact the department significantly for the usual term of office, this is the situation at Cornell University’s Africana Studies Department. After decades of scholarship on the intersections of race and gender, as these function in the larger society, the Cornell experience reveals that practices of institutional sexism and racism continue unabated.

From its founding in 1968 up to the current moment, Cornell’s Africana Studies Department has never had a woman as its fully-appointed director, even though there have been women on the faculty with the experience or potential to function in this capacity.2 It is also telling that its peer institutions with comparable departments—such as Penn, Harvard, Yale and Northwestern–have long since corrected this anomaly and several have already had stellar women chairs. While a few Black women have had administrative positions in other units at Cornell, in the Africana Studies and Research Center’s fifty-year history, the higher administration at Cornell has not deemed male exclusivity in leadership a major concern and they have not addressed or challenged the male faculty towards a more evolved position on this issue.

At its inception under the leadership of the legendary James Turner, the founding director who created the Africana model, the imperative was to secure the footing of Africana Studies as a field within the larger Eurocentric university context. At that time, Africana, with student activism, negotiated an appropriate administrative arrangement by which it reported directly to the provost. This served the unit well, but the result was that Turner served for sixteen years without cultivating or grooming younger leadership of any gender. Still, under Turner’s progressive leadership style, Africana grew, established a building of its own, and became the place that scholars and writers around the world saw as the leading model and center for the advancement of the field.3

Following Turner, subsequent directors have included a long line of Black men. In one instance, a male scholar who came to Cornell as a post-doc made his way through the institutional ranks to become director, served for two terms. Another individual without Africana or administrative experience was made director despite being in the department for only two months. Still, no women were deemed good enough for leadership, even when these scholars, some of the most distinguished in their fields, held leadership positions in other units or organizations. Despite having extensive administrative experience, they were all deemed incapable of assuming the leadership of Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell. What is evident for Black feminist scholars–like this writer studying and experiencing this intense marginalization–is that there are layers to this institutional sexism as it pertains to Black women faculty at Cornell with which the institution seems comfortable, and that there are limited avenues for achievement, service, recognition or reward internally.

The complicity of the higher administration in the maintenance of this institutional sexism is further clarified at the dean’s and provost level. In a highly contested and public process, Africana was moved by then Provost Fuchs into Arts and Sciences, placed under receivership and administered by two associate deans jointly. Since then, Arts and Sciences deans have selected its leadership based on private polling of faculty members. While this may work in other units, this process reinforces male exclusivity in Africana Studies. Significantly, leading up to, during and following receivership, another group of faculty was recruited, including four women, three at the associate level and one full professor (this writer), who prior to Cornell served successfully for nine years as director of an African Diaspora Studies Program and as president of several organizations. Even with this new more gender-balanced faculty representation, the obvious and continuing pattern of institutional sexism continued as still no woman, however willing or qualified, was seen as capable of serving fully in a capacity that would give the department a less-sexist direction and profile. As a result, Cornell’s Africana remains a department with tensions generated by these historic and contemporary gender biases, amassing additional more egregious ones along the way such as graduate students being referred to by an egregious sexual-racial epithet by a faculty member and no internal remedying of the residue of this situation. Significantly, male faculty have developed a kind of relay arrangement, passing the chair’s baton to each other–endorsing and supporting each other’s practices with the blessing of the administration.

This Cornell scenario provides us with an excellent case study of how institutional sexism works particularly as it intersects with racism. These two pertain to the treatment of Black women and how this affects students in general. I have been prompted to write about this precisely because of this untoward experience and with a deep political sense that it is important to also challenge misogyny in Black institutions. However, the larger institutional arrangements solidify a decidedly racialized sexist pattern of leadership at both departmental and college levels, which reinforces institutional sexism as described above and in which Black women are decidedly disadvantaged.

It is my sense that similar critiques apply to the academy in general. Since institutional racism is now recognized for its structural arrangements and institutional sexism is often left unaddressed as it pertains to Black women and other women of color, an intersectional analysis is warranted in examining academic institutions like this one, especially in a context in which diversity is indicated as one of the institution’s core principles. Abundant scholarship certainly exists to explain how race, gender and sexuality intersect in institutional leadership paradigms that produce continued and normalized patterns of gender-based discrimination.

While a 2005 outside evaluation of Africana flagged sexism in Cornell’s Africana and was the basis for hiring more women, including this writer, a recent report indicated tensions and problems in faculty relationships without addressing the underlying issue of gender bias which generates these problems. Such scrutiny has never been more urgently needed than now when a woman is serving as the institution’s president who created a 2018 Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate. Sadly, this report on ways to limit bias and improve campus climate did not address the specifics of how Black women faculty and other faculty of color are treated at the department level and in the larger institutional context. Since this openly-practiced gendered institutional bias seems to be co-signed by the Arts and Sciences Dean’s office,  it is heartening that the recent Cornell University Provost report has as one of the recommendations to “require deans to report on their efforts to diversify faculty and staff and their progress at the department and college level.”

Clearly, this situation is not unique to Cornell. While institutions like Harvard have made deliberate attempts to ameliorate this condition, it is important to recognize that institutional sexism is as significant as institutional racism. Black women are caught in between these, or are subject to, two types of historical inequities.4 Such practices inhibit the possibility of radically innovative pedagogy, lowers departmental expectations and morale, affects faculty health, and reduces the student population. They also undermine the larger historical intent of Africana Studies as a transformative field of study. In the racial and sexist moment in which we live, the academy–even if it challenges the larger racist narratives and practices–must also be a place where interconnected gender biases and male exclusivities are recognized as harmful to an institution’s overall intellectual and social climate.

  1.  Institutional sexism refers to gender discrimination reflected in the policies and practices of organizations such as governments, corporations (workplaces), public institutions (schools, health care), and financial institutions. These practices derive from systematic sexist beliefs that women are inferior to and therefore less capable than men. See Christina M. Capodilupo, “Institutional Sexism” in The Sage Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender. I extend thanks to several feminist scholars who read this piece and offered helpful suggestions.
  2.  A female associate Arts and Sciences dean served as co-manager of Africana during receivership and a woman served as interim director for one year to give the male director a negotiated year off. However, this male scholar still functioned as Director during this period.
  3.  For years, Africana delivered the strongest Bachelors and Masters Degrees (MPS) in Africana Studies, producing scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw who went on to obtain professional degrees and complete PhDs in major disciplines. Many of its graduates are now faculty at major institutions and professionals in various fields all over the United States. A new PhD program now in its fourth year has since supplanted that legendary Africana MPS.
  4. I am aware that having any woman in leadership, if  she is unmindful of her social location, does not automatically mean better leadership in the larger political context as in the academic one, but the problem of consistent exclusion never provides us with different models. This issue of the exclusion of women has been addressed as a problem in international contexts through the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which the US has never signed.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Carole Boyce Davies

Carole Boyce Davies is a Professor of English and Africana Studies at Cornell University. She is the author of several books, including 'Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject' (Routledge, 1994); 'Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones' (Duke University Press, 2008); and 'Caribbean Spaces: Escape Routes from Twilight Zones' (Illinois, 2013). Follow her on Twitter @Ca_Rule.

Comments on “The Persistence of Institutional Sexism in Africana Studies

  • Yes indeed. All of that. Thank you Dr. Davies.

  • Thank you Professor Boyce Davies. Indeed your critique of institutional sexism and racism applies with full force to other universities, colleges, departments and programs as well. The increasing neoliberalization of higher ed — the emphases on marketability, instrumentalization of knowledge, efficiency — fuels these problems. It’s invaluable to place our struggles at specific sites in the larger context you provide.

  • Thank you for sharing this. This is terrible to hear and I hope this helps lead to any of a number of corrections that need making.

  • Thank you Dr. Boyce Davies. This piece powerfully unmasks the shadows of diversity some institutions cover the absence of equity and gender equity.

  • I think it’s also important to note that these dynamics empower people who are willing to exploit intersections of class and colorism, as well as, racism and sexism against other Black women, as has been the case in an academic unit I worked in. The idea that “there can be only one”, a token Black girl, is as toxic and pervasive as the Brothers Club that locks Black women out of advancement.

    • Absolutely Alyss. Have seen this script play out as well but it goes back to the initial problem of not viewing the entire field and selecting the convenient and accessible person who does whatever the institution wants.

      • It’s so frustrating. I try not to shade other Black women academics, but, whooowee! academe makes that challenging! As I told a friend during my last appointment, it’s really up to the Provost, President and Chancellor/Regents, if they aren’t working with good intentions, good faith and an understanding of how White Supremacy operates against inclusion and diversity, then, nothing will change. The fish rots from the head.

  • Thanks Dr. Davies for raising these important issues! It’s high time that an intersectional approach was brought to bear on our institutional practices. The implications of these practices are substantial and need to be rigorously addressed. Single-issue (non-intersectional) approaches to these issues have never been sufficient. Almost every campus in the US needs to have a conversation like this. I hope this will jump start that conversation!

  • Thank you for this important discussion. As you mentioned, sexism is throughout academe, and ‘Africana Studies’ is no exception, but one would think that ‘Africana Studies’ would be on alert to all forms of discrimination. For Cornell (and other institutions), a full case study need to be done to get to the core reasons why women have not headed Africana Studies, hence every person need to explain their experience or understanding of the gender dynamics within the unit. In my experience, women have headed many units of ‘Africana Studies’ (Black Studies, etc.), and they have headed professional associations like the National Council for Black Studies, the Association of Black Psychologist, and others.

  • Thank you, Prof Boyce Davies for this equitable description of a persistent problem shared beyond the Ivies. The university administration is responsible, period. Unfortunately, neoliberal managerial diversity solutions are the only medicine of university administrations’ palliative approach, and then only when exposed and embarrassed. Since departmental and centre/institute patriarchal structures remain in place, the transformational project of Africana Studies, as you note, continues to be partial and deeply gendered, robbing students of all genders of a rich Africana education. The fear of Black Women is palpable and the fear of Black women’s frequent principled insistence on institutional change clearly threatens Cornell as well as other campuses.

  • In Zulu, it is said: Ubuqotho – meaning that we stand for what is right, having a strong sense of integrity and how we go about living our lives and doing the work of social justice. Thank you Dr. Boyce Davies for writing a strong, transformative analysis examining the multi-layered complexities of disenfranchisement of Black women in the academy – with a specific emphasis on the location of Africana Studies where Black women have experienced multiple forms of misogyny, while at the same time have been at the forefront of history and movements. There is a line of Audre Lorde’s poem, “A Litany for Survival,” that is most applicable here: “…the heavy-footed hoped to silence us…” In this case, Black men in the academy need to set up and engage a transformative politics and move beyond the complicity of an institutional phallocentric enactment of male dominance, which is rooted in a very violent racialized, gendered, and sexualized history. I, for one, am strongly committed to this fight.

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