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Black women in academia face unique challenges on the job


The past few weeks have been full of controversy and tragedy for Black women in academia. Claudine Gay, the first Black woman to head Harvard University, stepped down after a donor-led campaign pushed for her ouster over plagiarism accusations and her response to antisemitism on campus. And earlier this month, a former administrator at Lincoln University, a historically Black college, died by suicide. Antoinette Candia-Bailey had reportedly complained of bullying at the institution. The school's president, a white man, has taken a leave of absence while the case is reviewed. All of this has led to an outcry about the treatment of Black women in higher education.

Here to talk with us about the weight of this moment is Joy Gaston Gayles. She's the head of North Carolina State University's Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development and a former president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Welcome to the program.

JOY GASTON GAYLES: Thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me to have this tough conversation.

RASCOE: And I want to be clear that you're speaking on behalf of yourself, not on behalf of any institution. I want to start off - talk to me about what it is like to be a Black woman trying to climb the ladder in higher education. What is unique about that circumstance?

GAYLES: It's difficult because for a lot of us, particularly if we are in predominantly white institutions, it's hard because you'll find that you are the only one or one of few, and that's been the case for me. And, you know, when you're the only one, when microaggressions happen, when gaslighting happens, you question it to say, did that really happen? Did that really happen to me? And if you don't have anybody to talk to, if you don't have a community of support, you can just endure that day after day after day. And that's how bullying is able to perpetuate itself and - 'cause nobody is stepping up to stop it. And particularly in reference to Black women - we don't get that kind of protection.

RASCOE: I mean, I read that Black women often feel like their research is less likely to be funded. They're scored lower on faculty evaluations. Tressie McMillan Cottom often says - and she's a scholar - that the institution cannot love you. And I just wonder about what that feels like - to give in that way.

GAYLES: Yeah, but you got to have your why straight. We are in these spaces, and we know this - that the academy will never love us to the extent that we love it because we show up because we love what we do. We love the students that we work with. And so you have to have your why together. Otherwise, you will get caught up in the ways that the institution not loving us manifests itself. To some degree, like, I think about Claudine Gay, like, leaving - she had to because they were going to keep coming for her until she did. And I just think about the stress that happens when they come for you in that way, and it's not worth it, right? I want to do good work, but I don't want to die.

RASCOE: Talking about Claudine Gay - when she stepped down, I saw so many posts on social media from, like, Black professors, and they seemed extremely distraught. Why did her resignation hit so hard?

GAYLES: I think it hit hard because, like, she was the first...

RASCOE: The first.

GAYLES: ...Black woman president to lead this, you know, elite institution. It reflects back to you what you are experiencing, and it's a harsh reminder that regardless of what you achieve, regardless of working 10 times harder, regardless of exemplifying Black excellence - none of that will save you.

RASCOE: You knew Antoinette Candia-Bailey, or Bonnie. You knew Bonnie. Tell me about her.

GAYLES: Yeah. So when I came to NC State in 2007, our time at NC State overlapped. When - I'll just be frank. When Black people come to the university, we find each other and support each other and talk to each other because there's not that many of us to begin with. And so my encounters with her were always pleasant. She was always full of joy and life and light. And then, you know, she eventually moved on and continued her career. But, you know, we kept in touch via social media. Every now and then, we'd send each other a note to say hey. She was just always full of life and joy. And, you know, hearing of her passing really, really affected me because I - that's the last thing I would have expected.

RASCOE: And she worked for an HBCU. Lincoln University is an HBCU, and that is supposed to be a safe haven. But in this case, it wasn't.

GAYLES: Yeah. Well, I'm a proud graduate of an HBCU, and I love my HBCUs, but they are not perfect, either. And it goes back to the ways in which we perpetuate violence and systemic racism, sexism, all the things. It permeates all of society, not just predominantly white institutions. It happens more than people would imagine at HBCUs, too.

RASCOE: What do you think that Black women need from academia at this point? And what is not just lip service?

GAYLES: Yeah. We need a lot. But it's not just higher education. It's society. You know, I feel like we got to come to terms with our history and the reality. I feel like there's a movement to move us away from doing that because of the fear and the shame and the guilt. But we got to come to terms with that - and not just higher education but society 'cause we exist in a society now where some of us are still thought of as property. And when you dehumanize people to that extent, it allows you psychologically to do some things that you have justified, you know, in terms of - it makes sense to you because they're not really human. They're - we think of them as property.

RASCOE: That's professor Joy Gaston Gayles, head of North Carolina State University's Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development but speaking on her own and about her own experience. Thank you so much for joining us.

GAYLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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