Nell Irvin Painter


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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 judged—which 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 often—understandably—we 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 pressures—problems with "the system" such as lack of support from peers, too few women of color?

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 and then.

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 individuals—we 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 say—really 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 circles—because they are published in journals and invited to speak at conferences—that 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 discipline.

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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