At Radcliffe Panel, Scholars Say Academia Must Not Marginalize Black Women

Black women scholars are often marginalized—and the study of black women is an afterthought—in the academy today, according to a group of panelists who spoke at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Friday.

“Even in the best of times, America is tough on blacks, tough on women, and tough on black women scholars,” said Nell I. Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton University. “The field of black women’s history is flourishing, but I worry deeply about the toilers. Black women scholars are in danger.”

Painter was one of six panelists who spoke at a roundtable discussion titled “Gender and Race: Together at Last.”

More than 400 people attended the panel, which was part of the full-day “Gender, Race and Rights in African American Women’s History” conference, which honored the 60th anniversary of Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.

In the 1980s, Painter said, academia welcomed women grudgingly.

“African-American studies was all about black men and Women’s Studies was all about white women,” she said.

Though she said “black women are in positions that black women have never been in before,” Painter noted that higher education remains a stressful environment for African-American women.

“There are two kinds of stressors: white men who say black women got their job because they are black women and black men and sexual harassment,” she said.

Painter said prizes for published work are one arena that still needs to change, arguing that black women are rarely recognized for their scholarship.

Deborah G. White, a professor of history at Rutgers University who also spoke on the panel, said the changes that have taken place in academic publishing are only a first step.

“We have a whole new vocabulary to speak of difference, and the publishers no longer ask us if there is an audience,” she said. “But some things have only been altered. There still seems to be a wonderment for African-Americans who don’t study African-Americans.”

She also noted that many academics assume that African-American studies is an easier field for black scholars than white scholars.

“Some people think I came by my knowledge by osmosis, being black made it easier for me,” she said.

Other panelists said they were more optimistic about the place of black women in the academy and the study of black women.

Harvard professor of history and Afro-American Studies Evelyn B. Higginbotham praised the progress of the field.

“It is exciting to see African-American women inserted in texts when I know they would not have been in the past,” she said.

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