Finding My Voice:An African-American Female Professor at a Predominantly White University

By Marbley, Aretha Faye | Advancing Women in Leadership, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Finding My Voice:An African-American Female Professor at a Predominantly White University


Marbley, Aretha Faye, Advancing Women in Leadership


Abstract

Drawing from her personal experience, the author shares concrete examples from her promotion and tenure review, including the experience of social integration issues and the ramifications that the higher education environment had on her personal and professional attitudes as an African-American female faculty member. Included in the discussion is her feeling isolated, devalued, and unwelcomed. She discusses how her value systems, culture, ethnicity, and behavior patterns often conflict with those held by the university and white faculty members and students, and finally, how these conditions disempowered and suppressed her voice as a female faculty and faculty member of color.

"When and where I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole . . . race enters with men" (Giddings, 1985, p. 13). I stepped slowly and cautiously onto the bottom set of escalators taking me to the lower-level of the Crown Center shopping mall in Kansas City , Missouri , where an array of restaurants was located. My attire (black suit with gold buttons running down the front of the blazer, coffee-colored stockings, and matching black suede shoes) had the look of elegance, success, and status. I was a newly-tenured professor at a Research I university. On the outside, I had it going on, while on the inside, my heart was heavy and I felt no joy. I had accomplished another milestone in my life-receiving promotion and tenure-but in the place of joy there was sadness and an ethereal kind of silence.

As I made my way to a table in the back of a restaurant to wait on my friends and co-presenters, I reflected on the conversation I had with my mentor 10 minutes earlier; he wanted to know how I was doing and to congratulate me on getting tenured and promoted. I commented that it had been positive, but I did not feel like celebrating. He listened intently as I talked about my six years of turbulence. We spent the last few moments discussing my future plans with him giving me tips for my continued success and my pursuit of full professor and beyond. As we hugged and said goodbye, he looked at me with his piercing and kind eyes and quietly said, "Aretha, I wonder when you will find your voice."

He was right. I had spent six years on the job, speaking often, and yet no one, neither I nor my colleagues, heard my voice. I wondered if this was my plight as an African-American female in a predominantly white institution (PWI). Was my experience any different from other women, people of color, African-Americans, or African-American women?

Women and Faculty of Color in the Academe

In a 1975 address at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin , Texas , Barbara Jordan said,

The women of this world-as the women of Texas, and women of the United States of America-must exercise a leadership quality, a dedication, a concern, and a commitment which is not going to be shattered by inanities and ignorance and idiots....We only want, we only ask, that when we stand up and talk about one nation under God, liberty, justice for everybody, we only want to be able to look at the flag, put our right hand over our hearts, repeat those words, and know that they are true. (Blue & Naden, 1992, p. 91)

Women and faculty of color have made noteworthy gains. Sadly, 30 years later faculty of color continue to hold nontenured positions, remain among the ranks of junior faculty members, and are employed at two-year colleges (Antonio, 2002; Manzo, 2000; Opp & Gosetti, 2002; Perna, 2003 ). In Research I and II institutions nationwide, only 3% of the faculty is of color (Alger, 2000; Smith, 1996).

For African-Americans, the good news is that Blacks earned more professional degrees in 1994 (Black women earned twice the number of law and medical degrees) than in 1976 (College Fund, 1996). And in 2003, Black doctorates (6. …

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