By: Penelope Andrews
PRESUMED Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is a volume of essays published last year by US women academics, highlighting their experiences at universities.
It focuses on the contradictory culture of universities that on the one hand champions meritocracy, the search for truth through research, the pursuit of freedom of expression and association and the pursuit of objective knowledge to improve society — all of which ostensibly render race, gender, sexuality and other identities irrelevant.
But on the other hand, the presumption of incompetence often surfaces when discussing women of colour in higher education — whether as administrators, teachers, scholars, or in committees.
While many women of colour achieve great success at universities and have joined the ranks of an educated elite, many others feel alienated from the institutions and are often treated unfairly based on their race and gender. They frequently find their credentials or authority questioned by colleagues as well as students.
Last June, at a conference in Seattle, three lecturers from Wits University and I met one of the editors of Presumed Incompetent. It led to a decision to host a workshop on the experiences of black women in law faculties in SA, with the purpose of publishing a book and expanding the discussion beyond law faculties. The workshop was held last month at the Wits Law School, where one of the editors of Presumed Incompetent and I delivered keynote addresses.
How black women embark upon and succeed in their careers at universities is ripe for exploration in light of the transformation initiatives under way at South African universities including an exploration of measures adopted to ensure that black people, especially black women, are recruited, promoted and retained.
Apartheid-generated traditions of white male supremacy at its institutions and internalised notions of black and/or female inferiority still haunt them.
For black women at South African universities, the question is how to confront the detritus of apartheid’s cultural and psychological damage, and how to engage in a cultural clean-up operation that preserves our dignity and resilience.
For those of us in positions of leadership, the question is what to do with our influence and authority. Which strategies do we adopt to move institutions towards their transformative goals?
At the workshop, I offered the following suggestions for black women leaders in universities:
• Engender a culture of respect and engagement;
• Be clear about your goals and those of your institution;
• Ensure institutional processes to deal with racism, sexism, homophobia and other complaints of discrimination are transparent, fair, effective and efficient;
• Encourage mentoring;
• If the goal is to increase the racial or gender demographics at the institution, be purposeful in appointments and be strategically colour-and gender-conscious;
• Model appropriate behaviour, but do not change who you are, only how you lead and collaborate;
• Follow Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which outlines how well-designed check lists can improve efficiency and outcomes.
In the transformation processes under way at historically white universities, including the University of Cape Town (UCT), previously marginalised groups — black men and women and white women — are making their way in increasing numbers into positions of leadership.
At UCT, three of the eight faculty deans are black and four are women (one is a black woman), and of the 11 executive positions, six are held by black people, and five by women (two are black women).
Although the overall picture for black women at UCT remains disappointing, now that a few of us are in leadership positions, our presence will continue to undermine the presumption of incompetence.
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