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.