Black Women as Outsiders Within the Academy: A Love letter

by Dr. Christa J. Porter / Jul 6, 2020

The past few months have unveiled the pervasive racialized realities for and of Black folx since our ancestors were forcibly enslaved in the United States over four hundred years ago. The murders of Black folx; erasure of and lack of urgency concerning cis and trans Black women; and daily reminders of systemic racism, anti-Blackness, misogynoir, and fragility not only perpetually relegate us to the margins of U.S. society but also as members of our departments and institutions. White supremacist ideals frame the very fabric of the infrastructures and institutionalized systems we have survived and navigated.

Black women have existed, and continue to exist, within the academy as outsiders (Collins, 1986). We are in the academy but not of the academy. We are doctoral students, post-docs, academic administrators, and contingent and tenure-track/tenured faculty. Yet a historical legacy of marginalization, devaluation, and gendered-racist discrimination for, to, and on behalf of those who look like us undergirds the academy (Boss et al., 2019; Carter Andrews, 2015; Porter et al., 2020). And even still, we find ways to thrive, progress, and attempt to change the very structure of academia piece by piece in our respective spheres of influence; sometimes student by student and colleague by colleague (Croom, 2017; Croom & Patton, 2012; Sulé, 2009). 

I use the word “we” to symbolize our collective journey. While we do not share the same individual experiences, we, as a collective of Black women, are socialized to expect and ready ourselves for the constant and consistent “othering” we endure as members of the academy (see #CiteBlackWomen and #BlackintheIvory).

At the American College Personnel Association annual meeting earlier this year (pre-COVID-19), a handful of Black women faculty joined me in discussing our positioning and social location in the academy. We articulated the multiple and complex ways we (re)negotiate our situatedness and praxis as Black women. Black women—our embodiment, narratives, and intersections of multiple marginalized identities—are hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. We are quickly called upon to serve and lead diversity and inclusion efforts on both the college and institutional levels. We maintain high advising loads of students—most, if not all, of the people of color—who were probably recruited and/or enrolled into our programs because of us being there. We receive national recognition for our scholarship, service, and contributions to higher education, yet lack similar affirmation and validation from the very institutions we serve.

We are often on the receiving end of negative (and gendered racist) performance and teaching evaluations. We are socialized under the assumption (and reality) that we must work twice as hard to achieve half of the “success” of our white colleagues. And we are primarily employed in contingent, non-tenure-track, and adjunct positions, relegated to the margins of departmental and institutional structures and decision-making.

And yet, we are still here. We are still applying to academic appointments. We can exist in the both/and. We can be in and not of, in the same breath, at the same time. We always have. And most of the time our existence has relied upon other Black women who have paved the way, knocked and pushed down doors, and served as canaries in the coal mines (Croom & Patton, 2012). Collectively, we serve as possibility models (Patton & Haynes, 2018); we broaden the pipeline of and for historically marginalized and minoritized folx, we influence curricular innovation, we shape education, we socialize one another and those coming after us, and sometimes we bring our folding chairs; other times we create our own tables.

We concluded the conference session with strategies each of us employed as outsiders within the academy. Our strategies centered on the following six themes:

  • Reach back. Mentor and advise students, serve on their thesis and dissertation committees, volunteer as participants in dissertation studies, and strategically engage institutional service.  
  • Find your people. Build a network—inner and outer circles—of co-conspirators, peer mentors, and sponsors; engage in mutually beneficial and authentic relationships with each person and group of people. 
  • Know the handbook. Memorize your institutional reappointment, tenure, and promotion guidelines, understand all policies and practices, and make sure your dossier exceeds written (and unwritten) expectations.
  • Be visible. Develop an institutional and national reputation by branding your name and scholarship as influential, credible, and relevant to various audiences.
  • Stay true. Continually reflect on who you are and strive for congruence across your research, teaching, service, and praxis.
  • Protect your peace. We are not immune—no matter the degree, status, or rank—from gendered racist oppression; learn to ask for what you need and employ proactive strategies as a form of radical self-love.

Dr. Christa Porter

Black women must continue to do, and be, and survive, and thrive. Then breathe, rest, and call upon other Black women and people of color for support. And then do it all over again. We must individually, within our respective spaces, and collectively, as Black women in the academy, acknowledge our value, contributions, and significance. We must retain each other (Fries-Britt & Kelly, 2005). We may not be of the academy, but we have been (re)presenting (for) one another in the academy since we got here. And we will continue to do so. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it and we depend on each other; so we have to. Sis, you got this. We got this.


Dr. Christa J. Porter

Contact Dr. Christa J. Porter at for more information about the American College Personnel Association workshop held in March and to discover more about her research in this area.