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Patrina Duhaney, PhD
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

Centering Black Feminist Praxis in Academia

Abstract

The current social and political climate have contributed to a resurgence of conversations related to systemic racism, in particular, anti-Black racism. Scholars and activists emphasize the significance of advancing theorizing that focuses on the ways in which race and racism characterize and impact Black people's lives. While the social work profession aims to promote social justice, current theoretical frameworks remain ineffective in articulating Black women's unique experiences within and outside of academia. Thus, social work remains complicit in upholding eurocentrism, western ways of knowing and white supremacy in institutional policies, practices and procedures. I draw on current scholarship to interrogate the ways in which Black feminisms and pedagogies help delineate Black women's subjugated identities of race and gender in predominantly white institutions. I offer several strategies educators can utilize to effectively integrate Black feminist pedagogies.

Introduction

Over the past several decades, there has been increased efforts from Black women activists and scholars to confront and eradicate the multiple oppressions Black women experience. However, the growing social and political unrest following copious police brutality and killing of Black women and men coupled with everyday experiences of anti-Black racism have heightened the need for immediate interpersonal, institutional and systemic transformation. Within academia, institutions must give account for their complicity in reinforcing whiteness and white supremacy. The manifestations of racism are deeply rooted in hiring practices. For example, Black women are disproportionately underrepresented and continue to face a number of inequities which complicate their precarious positionalities (Henry, Dua, James, Kobayashi, Li, Ramos & Smith, 2017). In fact, their mere existence often appears as tokenistic attempts by administrators to create an illusion of diversity.

The contributions of Black women remain largely obscured, devalued or erased in the curriculum and various bodies of literature. They often navigate hostile and racially charged environments and struggle to gain legitimacy. In particular, their place in the academy is overshadowed by immense institutional power, where their knowledge is questioned, and authority challenged by colleagues and students (Johnson-Bailey & Lee, 2005). Yet, there is little or no institutional support to acknowledge and address these issues.

The social work profession is also implicated in endorsing colonialism and nurturing whiteness (Badwall, 2014). This marred colonial history has shaped social work practice and education while normalizing and perpetuating racism. Although the social work profession aims to advance a social justice agenda by implementing different strategies to decolonize and indigenize the academy, it has yet to fully embrace other epistemologies that are not centered on whiteness. Consequently, the minimization or erasure of Black women’s voices legitimizes and reinforces eurocentric epistemological ways of knowing. Advancing theorizing such as Black feminisms and Black feminist pedagogies is beneficial in contributing to transformative learning in the classroom and beyond. In this article, I will first situate myself in relation to the topic. Then, I will provide a brief overview of Black feminisms and Black feminist pedagogies which are advanced as viable tools to raise critical consciousness in the classroom. I offer several strategies educators can utilize to effectively integrate Black feminist pedagogies.

As a Black woman, I have witnessed the ways in which Black women’s experiences are often ignored, misrepresented or misconstrued which reinforces negative stereotypes. I have also experienced how my raced and gendered identities influence how I navigate spaces that construct my black body in particular ways. Advancing theories that speak to Black women’s realities and debunking these negative stereotypes are necessary. Black feminisms are beneficial as they inform my research and teaching while validating and amplifying Black women’s contributions. Advancing marginalized epistemologies allows me to problematize the construction of knowledge, notions of knowledge, the validity of knowledge and the interests that are served through knowledge production.

Black feminisms emerged during the 1960’s in response to the erasure and subjugation of Black women’s contributions by white feminist movements (Taylor, 1998; Arya, 2007). However, some scholars have traced its origins as far back as slavery in the United States (Mills 2015; Rodgers, 2017). Black feminist scholars argued that dominant conceptualizations of Black women were ineffective in articulating their politicized group identification (Simien, 2006). Through theorizing, Black women attempted to escape and oppose social injustice and dominant ideologies (Collins, 2000). During this time, the invisibility and underrepresentation of Black women in other facets of society including, health, social science, education, scholarship etc. was also evident (Pereira, 2015; Taylor, 1998). Although there are “differing epistemic positions and politics associated with Black feminisms” (Henry, 2005), they are guided by several key principles. Black feminisms position Black women’s experiences at the centre of analysis while bringing awareness to the multiple and simultaneous oppressions they experience (Lindsey, 2017). A central component of Black feminisms is an emphasis on Black women’s multiple and intersecting identities (i.e. race, class) (Crenshaw, 1991). As an analytical category, it explores the various manifestations of power and how these shape women’s understanding and conceptualizations of their experiences (Hurley, 2007). Informed by the key principles of Black feminisms, Black feminist pedagogies advance and challenge traditional/mainstream pedagogies, content and processes, examines power relations in and outside of the classroom and aim to create liberatory and emancipatory learning environments.

Integrating Black feminist pedagogical approaches can be informative and transformative while fostering a deeper understanding of the plight of Black women. Through these pedagogical approaches, students will be better equipped to grapple with concepts and perspectives that may be unfamiliar to them, interrogate their own biases and learn tools to contest dominant ideologies. However, there are a number of competing factors that affect the extent to which educators can effectively integrate Black feminist pedagogy within the classroom; 1) institutional and departmental support; 2) educators’ positionality and knowledge; 3) classroom structure and dynamics; and 4) students’ willingness to engage in consciousness raising activities. I offer several strategies that educators can utilize to address some of these issues. The strategies offered are not intended to be prescriptive or exhaustive but provides useful tools that could be integrated not only in social work but across various disciplines.

Structural inequalities are pervasive across universities. There are built in mechanisms within institutional processes that promote eurocentric ways of knowing and maintain dominant pedagogical practices. However, this challenge can be mitigated by an appreciation and integration of other ways of knowing such as Black feminist pedagogical approaches. Institutions that recognize the significance of amplifying Black women’s voices, experiences and contributions are more likely to dedicate resources and supports to build an effective program. However, in the absence of its inclusion, educators should recognize that the inclusion and exclusion of certain materials is a political act (Johnson-Bailey & Lee , 2005). Therefore, if a course on Black feminisms is not part of the curriculum, educators must be intentional about integrating readings/assignments and activities that align with Black feminist pedagogies. These should reflect the heterogeneity of Black women’s experiences and may include, music, poetry, movies, books, articles and social media.

An educator’s positionality and knowledge also shape their approaches to teaching and the ways in which students learn course content. In particular, Black women’s gendered and racialized identities position them differently in relation to white men and white women (Perkins, 1993). They often face significant “resistance” in the classroom where students challenge their knowledge and authority. Teaching liberatory and emancipatory pedagogies can be emotionally taxing for Black women. Yet, this expression of political activism in the classroom can be rewarding in so many ways for students and educators. Although, seldom celebrated, Black women’s lived experiences of racism, sexism and other forms of oppressions not only inform their perspectives but adds to their credibility and commitment to advocate for change while promoting social justice.

Tensions and challenges are inherent in all classroom settings. However, classroom dynamics may further exasperate difficulties in the classroom. Specifically, a classroom that is homogeneous or predominantly white may pose different challenges than a classroom that is predominantly racialized. Many students have been exposed predominantly to eurocentric perspectives. It is important that educators create a learning environment where students are viewed as mutually responsible for the development of a learning community” (hooks, 1994, p. 167) where educators and students can learn together. Although significant responsibility is placed on educators to ensure a learning environment, educators must debunk these traditional practices and co-create spaces to tackle issues as they come up. Regular feedback from students should be encouraged where they can “critique, evaluate, make suggestions and interventions” (hooks, 1994, p. 168) regarding course content and their experiences in the classroom.

Students’ willingness to engage in consciousness raising activities may pose significant challenges for educators. Many students may not be receptive to discussing the intersections between race, class and gender for a number of reasons. Educators must not shy away from these discussions. As hooks (1994) states “commitment to feminist politics and Black liberation means confronting issues of race and gender in a Black context” (p. 96). Educators should take the necessary steps to prepare students for difficult conversations at the onset of the course, provide them with the language to theorize and make meaning about their own experiences and the experiences of others. Educators should provide students with a plethora of case examples, scenarios and critical reflexive assignments. Students should also have plenty of opportunities to engage in reflexive thinking to help them make connections to broader social issues. It is also important to note that Black and other racialized students may experience some emotional burden or trauma in the classroom (Ringrose, 2007). Some may have a desire to validate their experiences, educate their peers or even contradict deep seated assumptions about Black people. Thus, educators should create space where they can appropriately attend to the psychological burden of Black students.

Black women face an upward battle in institutions and broader society where they are undervalued and relegated to the margins. Images and representations of Black women continue to re-enforce and re-inscribe white supremacy (hooks,1992). In fact, these stereotypical images support and maintain the oppression, exploitation and overall domination of Black women. Baseless claims of a post-racial or colour-blind society are contested by critical scholars who maintain that conceptualizations of race continue to negatively impact Black women. Therefore, we must confront and dismantle whiteness and white supremacy on multiple levels.

Furthermore, Black women’s experiences must not be an afterthought or remain on the periphery in academia. They must be center in discussions to better understand the ways in which racism, race and other aspects of their identities frame their experiences. Black feminist pedagogies offer critical insights into challenging dominant ideologies embedded in academia. Effectively integrating Black feminist pedagogies in the curriculum requires acknowledgement of Black women’s voices, experiences and contributions. The integration of Black feminisms must also extend beyond the curriculum and intentionally infused in research, scholarship and practice. By focusing explicitly on the experiences of Black women, Black feminist pedagogies provide a useful framework to help Black women create their own knowledge, validate/honour their experiences and provide an analytic to understand their experiences.

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