NWSA Journal 13.2 (2001) 87-97
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The Angry Black Woman Scholar
Charmaine C. Williams
The "outsider-within" position (Collins 1986) that is currently the norm for scholars of color in social work presents both opportunities and barriers to being fully realized, first, as academics, and then, as activists. Because social work scholarship has been dominated by white men and women, the presence of women of color in academia is itself a rupture of usual practice. At present, even in urban centers, there are few university professors from any discipline representing the so-called visible minorities in Canada (Rushowy 2000). For women of color, the energy required to pursue and secure academic opportunities requires vigorous commitment to political goals of representation and challenge to the status quo. At this point in history, however, this challenge comes from a position of extreme vulnerability. Moreover, the lack of representation of other women and racialized people who do not have access to opportunity and audience is a tremendous burden for the developing scholar. Despite a liberal discourse around increasing the representativeness of academia, scholars of color, often low-status players in university settings, are obliged to fit in, and are regularly disciplined to suppress the experiences that reveal barriers in place for those outside the mainstream academic culture (Blair, Brown, and Baxter 1994).
This article draws on my early experience as a scholar to develop some hypotheses about the meta-experience of academic women of color who attempt activism. The practice of autoethnography (Crawford 1996) is an opportunity to probe human experience by using personal life experience as a source of data. Engaging in autoethnography is a direct challenge to post-positivist assumptions about the nature of knowledge and how it can be advanced (Nicotera 1999). The post-positivist framework has postulated a sharp division between subject and object that is being challenged on several fronts. First, this subject-object division is based on essentialized assumptions about agency and passivity that are no longer accepted without question (Davies 1992; Fine 1994b). Second, it fails to recognize that the subject-object position shifts depending on context and the particular discourse in place (Nicotera 1999). Third, it evokes a modernist hierarchical categorization that would privilege expert knowledge over knowledge arising from lived experience or emotional response (Houle 1995). Finally, it does not account for the position of marginalized people who must negotiate the subject-object boundary on a daily basis, especially if they are engaged in anti-oppressive work that evokes issues [End Page 87] of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of identity politics (Fernando 1996). Autoethnography reinforces the view that academic knowledge is merely knowledge that has been disengaged from its primary source through theoretical abstraction (Houle 1995; Smith 1998). Therefore as a black, woman, would-be scholar, I see the potential to advance knowledge through a theory-driven processing of my first year in academia. This act follows the work of autoethnographers (e.g., Allen 1998; Baker 1993) who have constructed personal experiences into narratives that are intellectually generative. The hypotheses presented here may resonate less completely as time passes and my perspectives develop. I believe, however, that I have a legitimate perspective from which to extract a theory for understanding women of color as academic activists. As someone early in an academic career, I see my outsider-within status extends to my presence as a new scholar among established scholars; it is possible to see things now that could eventually be obscured from view.
As the title implies, I position myself currently as an angry black woman scholar, steeped in experience that has left me agitated in academia. These experiences will be sampled through anecdotes presented to demonstrate particular concepts that inform my understanding of the position of women of color in universities.
Excerpts from a First Year
It is necessary to share the theoretical framework that aided me in conceptualizing how my personal experiences are linked to a larger experience of women of color attempting social change within academia.
In a discussion of labor markets, Wilson (1980) asserts that people of color have...