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  • African Feminist Scholars in Women’s StudiesNegotiating Spaces of Dislocation and Transformation in the Study of Women
  • Josephine Beoku-Betts (bio) and Wairimũ Ngarũiya Njambi (bio)


The past decade has witnessed the publication of numerous feminist writings on issues of identity and difference in the analysis of women's lives (Anzaldúa 1990, 2001; Collins 1990; hooks 2000; Imam 1997; Mama 1996; Mohanty 1991; Oyewumi 1997; Sandoval 2001). Previously, a homogenized notion of "women" was taken for granted, and the experience of white middle-class women was generalized to other categories of women, irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, nationality, and cultural difference. This homogenization effectively ignored or dismissed the agency of historically marginalized groups of women whose modes of identity and self-definition did not fit into conventional discourses on gender. Feminist scholarship has more recently rethought this homogenization of women, and it has moved significantly toward a more complex analysis of women's differentiated lives, including those in the academic community.

In the academy, including women's studies, many feminists, particularly women of color, lesbians, and women with working-class backgrounds, have raised concerns about heterosexist, ethnocentric, and class-biased curricula; Eurocentric theoretical frameworks; applications of double [End Page 113] standards; sexual harassment; unfair evaluations, unequal pay, bypassed promotions; negative images from both students and colleagues; tokenism; as well as pressure to fit into a male model of behavior and/or to sever oneself from one's race and ethnic and class identity prior to entering academe (Cordova 1998; Dews and Law 1995; Garcia 1997; Zinn et. al. 1986).

These kinds of experiences can lead to feelings of exclusion and isolation, especially in academic contexts where women and minority scholars are few and lack academic and cultural support systems. It can also influence the degree to which such scholars become incorporated into departmental and student networking. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty describe the emotional effects of these complex and often conflicting experiences as a "sense of alienation, dislocation, and marginalization, that often accompanies a racialized location within white institutions" (1997, xiv). Edward W. Said (1999) describes this positioning as being "Out of Place," while Patricia Hill Collins (1990) describes it as the "outsider within."

Although these kinds of problems may be common among academic women in general, it is also important to account for the distinctive ways in which women of color, and African women scholars in particular, encounter and negotiate such institutions. For example, some problems that African women faculty face in academia are specific to the geographical, political, racial, and cultural histories of the societies from which they originate, and these issues stem partly from misrepresentations of African societies and cultures. Assumptions about Africans include cultural "backwardness"; preconceived notions about the inability and incompetence of Africans to teach American students; a persistent depiction of African accents and styles and forms of spoken English as bad and inferior; and depictions of African women as ignorant, exotic, and highly sexualized beings.

The ways in which women scholars of color perceive and experience American academic institutions can vary tremendously and depend very much on their already differentiated racial, sexual, cultural, and national backgrounds. For example, the stereotyping of Asian immigrants as scientifically and technically competent is directly associated with the notion of brain drain. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests, "The Indian community in the United States is the only coloured community which came in with the brain drain" (1990, 61). This suggests that the experience [End Page 114] of Indian women in U.S. academic institutions, and the ways in which Americans perceive and treat them, will be quite different from that of African women, who are stereotyped as less intelligent as a result of the already unquestioned presumption of African backwardness (Beoku-Betts 2005, 2004).

In most cases the feeling of "being out of place" that these experiences generate may not be recognized, understood, or acknowledged by those in privileged positions unless they fit into the general pattern of already familiar problems such as those associated with gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, international status, class, and disability within the U. S. context. Furthermore, insisting on the distinctiveness and seriousness of problems that some...


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