Monday, November 4, 2013

Everyday is like being on SNL: Daily Living of a Black Woman in Academe

Saturday Night Live (SNL) recently took on the issue of the lack of diversity on their show. Through a skit featuring Kerry Washington, they specifically addressed the lack of Black women on the show. During the skit, Kerry Washington was asked to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey (as depicted in the photo below) and even Beyoncé. Washington was asked to play these various Black women as a means of bringing to attention the lack of Black female cast members. Needless to say the skit was funny, but the irony of it all could not be totally masked with a laugh.

Source: "Saturday Night Live"

Black women are missing! They are missing from so many aspects of our lives. I’ve written about how they are missing in political science research in general and research using intersectionality more specifically. Sesko and Biernat (2010) have written on how Black women are being rendered invisible in a socio-cultural way. In comparison to other gendered and/or raced groups, Black women tend to go both unnoticed and unheard in part because of omission and in part because others refuse to see us.

For those of us who occupy these spaces, we are often asked, as was the case with Washington, to assume multiple roles and identities. As an academic I am often asked to:

Be the secretary.
Be the person on campus who can explain the behavior of the entire Basketball team.
Be the "therapist" for not only the Black students but other students on campus when my colleagues assume that I would be a good person for them to talk to.
Be the token person of color in meetings and to speak about issues affecting the minoritized community.
Be the one to teach others about their privilege after a racialized incident.
Be the professor who can teach on race and racism but who is often expected not to talk about how race and racism affects me in and outside of the classroom.
Be the one who always has a smile and is readily available to step in and help out.
Be the one to explain why kids of color “don’t seem to be able to write well”.

And the list goes on. On any given day, I’m expected to be a multitude of Black women—there to serve the interests of academe. So while I chuckle at the SNL skit, it hit a little to close to home for me.

The figurative wardrobe changes I’m expected to undertake in any given day is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love teaching (at least most days if I’m honest). I am also particularly passionate about the research I do. This is exactly why I chose to be an academic. But the demands placed on me as one of a few Black, tenured, women leaves me feeling as frazzled and winded as Washington’s character.

While academia espouses to inclusiveness, often the policies and climate portends otherwise. The racial-gender order of academia limits how many of us are able to walk the halls of academia. Often, the expectation is that Black women will fill in the gaps and provide to multiple and diverse individuals the resources they need. This is often an unfair burden placed on Black women.

While Academia can place such an enormous burden on Black women, it fails to offer them the necessary protection to thrive and flourish. Academia can fail Black women by not providing to students and faculty of color the resources needed to thrive and often by failing to openly confront the race, gender, class and sexuality hierarchies that impact how we are able to flourish.

As a junior faculty member and even as a tenured faculty member it can be difficult to assert agency in this case. So sometimes we accept the wardrobe changes and we appear breathless, but we keep moving on. The question that we must always ask ourselves, something that Al Sharpton teases out at the end of the clip, is “what have we learn”?


Jordan-Zachery, Julia. 2013. Now you see me, now you don’t: My political fight against the invisibility of Black women in intersectionality research. Politics, Gender and Identities, 1 (1): 101-109.
Sesko, Amanda. K., and Monica Biernat. 2010. “ Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46: 356-360.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Which Families Deserve Respect? One Thought on the Recent Killings of Teachers by Young Men

“Student Kills Math Teacher, Then Himself, at a Middle School in Nevada.”

“The boy, whose name and age have not been released, wounded two students during the attack.”

Two days later…

14-year-old Philip Chism  was arraigned as an adult for the alleged murder of a math teacher. 

Both cases are troubling and beg the question of what is causing boys, young men, and men to behave in such a way? How might the ideology of masculinity have shaped their behaviors is something we as a society should interrogate. Instead, we are more likely to have a conversation on gun availability (the Chism murder does not seem to involve a gun and only targeted one individual) and mental health. I completely agree that these are important conversations for us to all have. However, I think that the conversation remains incomplete when we fail to consider how the social construction of masculinity might contribute to these incidences.

However, this is not why I pen this post. My concern rests with how the media decides to share information about who is involved in such murders. 

Since this alleged murder I’ve learn about Chism's parents and about his life.

Meanwhile there is little information shared about the young man who murdered the teacher in Nevada and then committed suicide. We know nothing of the first young man except that he was in middle school.

How do we begin to theorize the media's differential treatment of these two young men (a term I use rather loosely as I see them as boys)? Why is it that so little information is provided on the first young man?

According to the New York Times, “The authorities say they are withholding the student’s name out of respect for his family.” Is Chism’s family not deserving of respect?  

How do we determine which families are deserving of respect? Who gets to make such determinations?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have to wonder: Might race play a factor? How might the social construction of race and violence influence the media's differential treatment of these young men? 

This is the eleventh post of my 31-day blogging challenge. You can tweet me at Dr_JZ using hash tag #31dbc to share your thoughts and share your stories. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"She’s one of the Good Dark Ones": Daily racialized experiences

After my flight had arrived safely, I found myself waiting in baggage claim for the driver who was to transport me to the hotel. We got there early, so I really didn’t mind waiting. Finally, I spot a gentleman approaching me with my name neatly written on the white placard. I met him halfway, he took my luggage and we walked to his car.

I’m settled in and as we start to leave the garage he said, “So you are a professor. So what do you profess?” I am a little tired and truth be told not exactly looking for an hour of conversation. Not wanting to be rude I replied, “I’m a professor of political science and Black Studies.” He looks in the rear view mirror and declares “Black Studies. Betcha I could teach you a thing or two about Black Studies!” I sigh and smile politely. To which he replies “What me to tell ya?” I’m thinking do I have a choice? So once again, I smile, settle in and wait for his tale. By the way most folk who hear what I do tend not to pounce on conversing with me about Black Studies. So I was a bit intrigued to hear what he had to say.

Let’s just say this man is a storyteller. He told me his story starting with his first girlfriend at the age of 15. I won’t retell his story, in an attempt to protect his privacy. I learned about his various friendships and even got a story on the changing dynamics of the community he lived in as a child and the one he currently lives in. It was interesting, but like I said, I’m not necessarily feeling like engaging in a conversation. So occasionally I murmur “really. That’s interesting.”

As we approach my final destination he starts to talk about his wife. Again, the story meanders to his earlier exploits that involved multiple lovers at the same time. He chuckled at the end of one thread of this discussion and said, “I’m no longer like that. I love my wife”. This if followed by a deep chuckle. I smiled. Then he declares “Shoot, she’ll cut me if I don’t behave. So I’d better behave.” I never know how to respond to such statements, so I remained quiet with a slight smile on my face. I thought he was done. But he needed me to know that she was a good woman and that he was only kidding. After all, according to him, “she’s one of the good dark ones. Not like those other dark ghetto ones. Those rough ones that would really cut you.” My eyebrows are raised. But he’s not done yet. What makes her one of the “good dark ones” according to him is that she’s educated.

At this point, I could not mask my horror. You see I’m a Black woman and my driver is a White man. He is a white man who professes his love for Black women, since the age of 15. However his love for Black women seem to be cloaked in an ideology of colorism. There was a part of me that wondered, what makes him think that it was acceptable for him to make such an assertion to me. Did he think that I would find such declarations appropriate because of my skin tone? Regardless, I was not pleased. I have a low tolerance for the ideologies of racism and colorism.

According to Burke (2008, 17) ‘‘Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin.’’ The ideology and practice of colorism tends to privilege lighter skin individuals, as a result of their perceived proximity to a white phenotype, over those who are darker. By virtue of her education, which made her among the good dark ones, this man’s wife was brought somewhat closer to “whiteness”, in the sense that she was made safe and morally sound. Thus she was moved closer to white.

The dominant image of the “good” woman is often projected via women of European descent.  The institution of slavery necessitated the construction of Black women as the polar opposite of the “good” woman against which the constructions of Black womanhood become meaningful. Those Black women not perceived as being close to White are often pathologized. There are often viewed as not as morally sound in comparison to women of lighter hue and those who are constructed as white.

Gender relations—both intergroup and intragroup—are rationalized via a hegemonic construction of the “good” woman. And it seems that the dark ones have very little chance to escape others’ construction of them as “bad”. So once again, my ride from the airport reinforced that although some proclaim that we live in a “post-racial” state and often shine the spotlight on inter-racial marriages as an indicator of such, that there is still work to be done at both the micro and macro levels. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

You better show skin if you want to be Sexy!?: What is “sexy” and who determines what “Sexy” is?

“If you are large keep yourself covered up.”
“God forbid, if you are big don’t show any skin.”
“Elle, how dear you?”
“Can’t big girls be sexy?”
“Too little skin”
“Is Melissa McCarthy Elle’s cover shameful?”

These are just a few of the statements/comments/questions I read or listened to in response to one of the recent covers of Elle magazine.

Melissa McCarthy’s cover is part of the Women in Hollywood series. Other women gracing the alternate covers include: Marion Cotillard, Shailene Woodley, Naomie Harris, and Reese Witherspoon. These women, such as Witherspoon, were captured in what some considered more revealing/sexy outfits. In other words, “there was more skin on display.”

How did we get to the point where sexiness seems to be defined by the level of nakedness we display? No I’m not being a prude. But I think that as we interrogate the cover we have to ask a series of questions to better understand our consumption of sexy. I don’t deny that Elle seems to be covering women with bodies over a certain size. There is a clear historical pattern. Elle did the same thing with the Adele and Gabourey Sidibe’s covers.

Elle is not shy about perpetuating white codes of dress and desirability. Their construction of women’s sexuality is both historical and social. The question that I continue to ponder in the midst of this discussion is how do we as a society consume the performance of sexuality?


The performance of sexuality has a long history in society in terms of delineating identity. The performance of sexuality, and how it is consumed, is part of our understandings of morality and social order. Consequently, the performance of sexuality becomes something to be policed and monitored. Part of this process involves the gaze. This has given way to the notion that some of us are sexy and as such should be viewed while those not deemed sexy should be covered up.

What fascinates me about this process is how as a society sexiness comes to be measured by the amount of skin that’s revealed. Why can’t we consider “being covered up” as sexy? Yet, if some individuals go to far and reveal too much skin they are considered “sluts”. So what is sexy and who determines what sexy looks like?

This brings me to Foucault and his concept of the “disciplinary society”. Discipline, as a mechanism of power, is used to regulate individual and collective behaviors. Regulation takes place in multiple forms and places—such as via architecture and our activities—including how we move and interact with each other. Discipline requires surveillance—the gaze, in part.

These magazine covers, and their content, are part of the cultural texts that simultaneously promote and perpetuate capitalism while defining the contours of femininity and its related understandings of sexiness. So Elle in choosing whose skin is sexy and therefore should be gazed at reveals the underlying mechanism of a very powerful system that does not require the disciplinarian, as we are all involved in the disciplining of the female body. Elle is part of the discipline—it is part of the mechanism of power that enforces and reinforces our understandings of what sexy means and who can be sexy. We, as a society contribute to this capitalist understanding by consuming these images often with little thought.

Gabourey Sidibe 

Consequently, I think that we need to pose a different set of questions, or maybe an additional set of questions, in response to the Elle cover. Instead of asking why isn’t McCarthy as scantily clad as the other women, we should ask, why must women bear skin in order to be considered sexy? While there are many more questions to be asked, this one seems key to me. 

This is the tenth post of my 31-day blogging challenge. You can tweet me at Dr_JZ using hash tag #31dbc to share your thoughts and share your stories.