Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

The Miner's Canary: A Critical Race Perspective on the Representation of Black Women Full Professors

Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

The Miner's Canary: A Critical Race Perspective on the Representation of Black Women Full Professors

Article excerpt


This article examines experiences of a Blackwoman full professor, and the benefits and privileges associated with reaching this rank. Its purpose is to leave little room for conjecture about the rank and those who have earned it. Using critical race theory and a critical race feminism framework coupled with the concept of the miner's canary, we suggest that by examining the experiences of Black women full professors we can gain an understanding of the role of full professors in academe and the systemic issues prohibiting their promotion to the highest rank of the professoriate. We call for disciplined scholarship in this area and offer questions that could assist in creating research agendas that examine the complex issues of access to the senior faculty rank of full professor.


In 2005, Lani Guinier presented the attendees of the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities with a useful metaphor for how to think about issues facing people who are racially marginalized in higher education - the miner's canary. She explained that in some mining communities, miners would take a canary into the mines with them to test the quality of the air. The collapse of the canary would serve as an early warning sign that miners were in danger of inhaling poisonous gases in the mine's atmosphere. In her speech, she challenged higher education to "rethink race and the role of those who have been excluded from, or underrepresented in, positions of authority or decision making in our society" (Guinier, 2005, p. 2005). She, alongside her colleague Gerald Torres (2002), urged that rather than interpreting the issues and experiences facing racially marginalized people in the academy as indicative of group pathology, scholars and leaders in higher education should instead view those issues and experiences as emblematic of broader systemic concerns. As Guinier and Torres (2002) reasoned:

Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to [non- White] communities. . . .Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning that we are all at risk (p. 11).

What Guinier and Torres suggest is that the convergence of racism and power not only endangers racially minoritized groups. This convergence also has significant implications for every person in society regardless of their racial standing.

As a point of departure in this conceptual essay, we borrow Guinier and Torres' metaphor of the miner's canary and apply it to an area of scholarship that has received a dismal amount of attention in the literature and the academic mines, the experiences of Black women full professors. We do not use the miner's canary metaphor to suggest that they are expendable by any means. Rather, we argue that some of their experiences reflect longstanding, endemic racism and sexism that still exists and marginalizes them based on aspects of difference. There are several benefits of examining and understanding the experiences of Black women at the rank of full professor. First, this line of inquiry provides an opportunity to acknowledge and address inequities often present in the process of promotion to full professor. Such inquiry serves the community of scholars by serving as a springboard for assessing both the environments and processes that many faculty encounter (particularly non- White women) as they continue in their academic careers beyond tenure. Second, this work calls to question how racialized and gendered hegemony exists to maintain the status quo in the professoriate and the academy. For example, comprehending hegemony through the experiences of Black women may help us to better understand (a) who pursues promotion to full professor and their motivations for such action, (b) what perceptions and biases involved in the processes related to promotion to full professor, (c) the connections between promotion to full professor and the selection of top academic institutional leaders (i. …

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