Posted on November 9, 2012

“Is That Healthy?” Experiences of Microagressions by Black Women at Historically Black Institutions

Marcia Allen Owens, The Feminist Wire, November 8, 2012

“Is that healthy?” the administrator asks, as we discuss a female student’s concerns. Meanwhile, she watches me, an untenured Black woman professor, holding tightly to my handful of journals in which I have chronicled years of microagressions and microinequities levied against me, as I wait until I receive tenure.

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.

The term microinequities describes the “pattern of being overlooked, underrespected, and devalued because of one’s race or gender.”

Much has been written about microaggressions against minority academics who are teaching at majority institutions. Through the lens of womanist scholarship, some has been written about Black women in general and in the academy overall, as well as theological scholarship in majority institutions. Other work looks at student incivility by students of color toward professors of color, but also in the context of majority institutions.

However, I’m a Black woman professor in the sciences at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). Although I am a member of the majority race in the academic context of my university, I am the sole Black woman on the faculty in my academic unit. Some teach at HBCUs in order to escape the overt racism more likely to be experienced in majority institutions. However, that does not immunize us from microinequities based on race and/or gender.  In discussing the struggles of Black women in the academy, Nancy Lynne Westfield writes:

Too much of our teaching work involves fending off the racist stereotypes foisted upon us by white students (and students of color covetous of whiteness).

However, the microagressions against Black women at HBCUs are minimized, marginalized, and often overlooked altogether. {snip}

My own experiences can be shared and categorized through the terminology of Sue et. al. as microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

microassault is an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.

{snip}  Microassaults to Black women in the HBCU context can often come from Black women students and staff. One young woman, who entered our doctoral program after having earned a Master’s from a majority institution, looked at the volumes on my bookshelf; she saw one particular book and pulled it from my shelf. In our discussion, I noted that I used it for one of the classes in our core curriculum. She replied, “Hmm… So, I don’t have to take your class. I already took it from the [white male] person who wrote the book.” My response (in Sapphire mode) to this macro-level invalidation of my presence and authority in her current institution was, “Well, he won’t be here for your comprehensive exams, nor will he be on your committee.”

Similarly, another young Black woman was introduced to me by the director and associate director of my academic unit, as I was assigned (without my consent or assent) to be her undergraduate academic advisor. This assignment came through the erroneous assumption that all Black women students would want me, the only Black woman faculty member, as a role model. A further erroneous assumption is that since the majority of our students are Black women, that I have the time, ability, and/or inclination to mentor every Black woman in the unit.

In any event, the student called the two male administrators Dr. X and Dr. Y. (It should be noted that our institution, as are many HBCUs, is very formal with respect to using titles, a historical practice that may have been born to combat the microaggressions of majority culture.) They introduced me as Dr. Owens and she immediately said, “Hello Miss Owens,” not even “Mrs.,” for I am indeed married.  She was corrected, “No, this is Dr. Owens.” And her reply was, “She must be Miss, Mrs., or something. What difference does it make? It ain’t that crucial!” They asked her to apologize, and she refused, saying, “For what?!” I then suggested that she needed a new advisor; at that point, I was called upon to be Mammy when the director said, “Dr. Owens, she needs you, she just doesn’t know it yet.” My response was, “Even if it kills me?”


So, I hold on for dear life to my handful of journals that contain the reality of prolonged exposure to daily gendered microagressions at an institution in which I am in the racial majority. The administrator asks, “Is that healthy?” My reply, preceded by a deep sigh, is “Absolutely not.”