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Nell Painter: Making it as a Woman
of Color in the Academy
Nell Painter is the Edwards professor of American
History at Princeton University. Most recently the author of Sojourner
Truth: A Life, A Symbol, she has worked in a variety of institutions
of higher education across her academic career. Susan Reiss, assistant
editor of AAC&U's publication, On Campus with Women, recently
asked Dr. Painter to share some of her thoughts and experiences as a woman
of color in the academy.
Reiss: What kinds of pressures do you see
women of color in the academy dealing with? How are these pressures different
from those that white men and women experience?
Painter: I see the pressures as mainly intellectual
and social. Intellectually, any woman and any black person must prove
that she or he is not dumb, and this applies doubly to black women who
are assumed not to be producing important work. The phrase "qualified
white man" simply does not exist. It's always a black man or woman who
has to prove she or he is truly "qualified," which in academia is very
hard to prove conclusively. You published an article in a leading journal?
It's not really a smart article. Your book won a prize? It's not the right
prize. This requirement means that women of color feel constantly as though
we're being judgedwhich we are. This is tiresome in the extreme.
Socially there's the problem of nearly always being
the only person of color in gatherings of whites, which means that you're
always on show, always standing for more than just yourself. You are "The
Negro." As a representative of a people thought to be incompetent and
undisciplined, you must remain vigilant not to reinforce ugly stereotypes.
As a result, many white colleagues complain that black colleagues aren't
any fun. Which oftenunderstandablywe are not. If you are "fun"
and you're black, that often means that white people treat you like a
pet, which is exceedingly off-putting. Many, many white people want their
black people to be unfailingly sweet tempered and smiling, which isn't
even possible for people who aren't under inspection all the time.
Reiss: Why are they experiencing these pressuresproblems
with "the system" such as lack of support from peers, too few women of
Painter: The very fact of being in a tiny
minority makes ANYONE feel weird. When you add in the specter of "Negro"
Authenticity, which holds that Real Black People are poor or working-class,
relaxed and grinning all the time, and not intellectual (a part of a general
American anti-intellectualism), many black Ph.D's feel like freaks now
Interestingly enough, I hear from my black women
colleagues all over the U.S. that white colleagues can be exceedingly
helpful by treating their colleagues of color as normal human beings,
as thoughtful fellow colleagues. This means not expecting us to be "The
Negro" all the time, but being interested in our work, whether or not
it's on African American issues. Providing thoughtful commentary on work
in progress while not being dazzled by just any old first draft that cries
"white people are racist!" is very much appreciated. Scholars of color,
like scholars everywhere, appreciate constructive criticism that helps
us expand our intellectual horizons.
Reiss: What's being done to ease the burden
of women of color who are faculty members or administrators at Princeton?
Painter: A couple of years ago some minority
women administrators inaugurated an Appreciation of Women of Color dinner,
which is a lovely occasion that now includes many whites. In addition,
many of us make a social/intellectual home in the Program of African American
Studies (PAAS). We have a Works-in-Progress speakers series that regularly
presents scholars engaged in interesting new work. Of course, the audience
includes many who are not black, but the main point is to let people of
color listen and talk about issues of interest on a regular basis.
Reiss: In your own career, what have you done
to stay focused and not "let the pressure get to you?"
Painter: I'm afraid the pressure still gets
to me, though not as badly as 10 or 20 years ago. I spend my summers on
a mountain lake, far away from the problems that wear me out during the
academic year and the people who get me down. I'd say that the first thing
a minority person needs to do is to get away so that she can simply relax
without always being questioned or on show. I also have some close friends,
women I've known for 10, 20 years, or more, who encounter the same frustrations
I do and with whom I can talk honestly. I'd be lost without my women friends,
not all of whom are black. I'm also lucky to have a supportive husband.
Reiss: What advice do you have as a campus
leader to improve the environment for women of color at colleges and universities?
Painter: The first thing is to realize that
women of color are individualswe aren't interchangeable units. We
aren't all in agreement with one another, but we often confront similar
frustrations and experience a familiar alienation. Colleagues and administrators
who care about us need to listen to what we have to sayreally listen,
not just stop talking for just long enough to formulate a rebuttal.
Not everything can be fixed, but some things can,
especially if colleagues and administrators are sensitive to their own
ways of dealing with people different from themselves. Although people
usually assume that they are acting and speaking freely, we often see
and hear patterns that convey a habitual message to us: "You're wrong."
The second thing is to deal with students more thoughtfully.
Part of what wears out faculty of color is salving the wounds of students.
How many times have I heard students wince when faculty say something
ignorant or bigoted! How many times have students complained to me that
they were expected to teach the segment of a course on African Americans
or Asian Americans or Latinas, when white instructors simply abdicated
their responsibility on the ground that since they weren't one, they couldn't
teach anything about people of color. (This reasoning only comes into
play regarding people of color or the American South. It doesn't stop
American professors from teaching, say, medieval France.)
Getting Media Coverage for Faculty Experts on Diversity
The mainstream media's reliance on a limited number
of academic diversity experts may give the public the impression that
only a few people work on these important issues.
While faculty members' expertise may be recognized
in academic circlesbecause they are published in journals and invited
to speak at conferencesthat recognition will not carry over to the
public unless they reach out to the mainstream media.
Faculty can approach campus public information offices
about being promoted as diversity experts. They can discuss with the director
their expertise and ways in which they might contribute to the public
dialogue on diversity. They can explore ways to highlight new research
on diversity issues they have recently published or will soon publish.
If faculty members have not frequently been interviewed
or are not comfortable with media, public information directors can provide
pointers for talking with reporters, editors and producers or arrange
for more advanced media training. Faculty can also practice by explaining
their subject matter to a colleague or friend who is unfamiliar with their
Faculty can also ask public information officers
to consider some of the following: release a brief version of their biography
to journalists who cover higher education and diversity issues; mail journalists
a "rolodex" card with their name on it, identifying them as an expert
on specific diversity issues; or help set up background briefings with
key higher education journalists, or journalists who cover diversity issues.
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