Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality

Article excerpt

Introduction

I recall a personal example of how multiple social identities may shape one's opportunities in higher education. As a woman of color from a "no collar" class (I come from a farm labor background), when first exploring graduate school options I was discouraged from applying to a master's level program in business by an admissions officer. The admissions officer stated that I would not fit. I was a woman, a minority, a single parent, I had a background in the public sector, and I had some but not enough math background. This would make it nearly impossible for me to succeed as others in the program fit another and opposite profile. Although all of this may be true, it did not occur to the admissions officer that this might not be an appropriate state of affairs for student enrollment in the program. It was merely accepted as the way things are and should remain. I remember being struck by the many ways I could be defined as not "fitting" and, therefore, not encouraged and, more than likely, not admitted. I was so easily "defined out" rather than "defined in."

I am now a faculty member at a major research university. My current work focuses on the experiences of faculty of color in higher education. While pursuing this work, I have had many opportunities to interview, converse with, and read about the lives of other faculty women of color. Many continue to speak, although in different ways, about the experience of multiple marginality and being defined out. The following quotations from the literature give insight into the lives of faculty women of color, including my own.

Lived Contradiction

I am struck by my lived contradiction: To be a professor is to be an anglo; to be a latina is not to be an anglo. So how can I be both a Latina and a professor? To be a Latina professor, I conclude, means to be unlike and like me. Que locura! What madness!... As Latina professors, we are newcomers to a world defined and controlled by discourses that do not address our realities, that do not affirm our intellectual contributions, that do not seriously examine our worlds. Can I be both Latina and professor without compromise? (Ana M. Martinez Aleman in Padilla & Chavez, 1995, pp. 74-75)

Ambiguous Empowerment

Readers who have listened to any group of professional women talk about their work experiences will likely find these stories familiar. Like other successful women who work in male and white-dominated professions, women superintendents have much to say about the way they managed to get into such positions despite the anomaly of their gender or race, how they developed confidence in their competence and authority, and what they have accomplished by exercising their professional power. They also talk about various forms of gender and race inequality that structure the profession and how they respond to discriminatory treatment...I study these familiar stories in order to understand how professional women make sense of their-their ambiguous empowerment--in the context of contemporary American culture. (Chase, 1995, p. x)

The narrative data presented here portray the lives of faculty women of color as filled with lived contradictions and ambiguous empowerment. Chase's (1995) "ambiguous empowerment" based on the lives of women school superintendents also applies to the experiences of faculty women of color. Although faculty women of color have obtained academic positions, even when tenured they often confront situations that limit their authority and, as they address these situations, drain their energy. For example, in an interview (1) a woman of color who is a full professor and chair of her department observes:

I'm the department chair,... and I meet with a lot of people who don't know me--you know, prospective students and their parents. And I know that their first reaction to me is that I'm an Asian American woman, not that I'm a scientist or that I'm competent. …