Is Africana Studies Sexist?: A Response to Dr. Carole Boyce Davis by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

According to senior scholar Dr. Carole Boyce Davies of Cornell University, Africana Studies gladly participates in institutional sexism. More specifically, she mentions the exclusion of Black women from leadership positions as heads of the field’s programs and departments in her piece, “The Persistence of Institutional Sexism in Africana Studies.” Consistent with early intersectionality theory a la Kimberlé Crenshaw, she proposes that Black women are the most denigrated group, and that Black men not only benefit from the white male institutional hegemony of this dynamic but help oppress Black women. This is assumed to be the case because Black men and white men share the same status as “men” (they have penises) and thus aspire to dominate others.

Although mainly citing Cornell and Harvard as evidence, the very title of her piece suggests that this is not only widespread, but rampant. Of her critique of the sexism “inherent” in the field, she says, “…this is the situation at Cornell University’s Africana Studies Department. After decades of scholarship on the intersections of race and gender, as these function in the larger society, the Cornell experience reveals that practices of institutional sexism and racism continue unabated.”

She further observes,

“It is my sense that similar critiques apply to the academy in general. Since institutional racism is now recognized for its structural arrangements and institutional sexism is often left unaddressed as it pertains to Black women and other women of color, an intersectional analysis is warranted in examining academic institutions like this one, especially in a context in which diversity is indicated as one of the institution’s core principles.”

Lastly, she cements her critique by bringing it full circle back to Africana Studies, stating,

“Such practices inhibit the possibility of radically innovative pedagogy, lowers departmental expectations and morale, affects faculty health, and reduces the student population. They also undermine the larger historical intent of Africana Studies as a transformative field of study.”

These types of baseless accusations are only acceptable when talking about Black men, because they have the least capacity (and will) to challenge such Black feminist assertions. No matter how progressive Black men may be, however, painting them as monsters is perfectly acceptable in mainstream society and in Black communities. In history or on college campuses, Black men remain monsters no matter how much they may have historically sacrificed for egalitarian gender roles.

Interestingly, Black men become the problem with the academy overall for Black women, but still little data was presented to support this assertion. So white men (and women) run most university campuses, and gender studies is primarily ran by white women, but the problem seems to be Black men? Hmm…

So how many Black professors are there? Drs. Tommy and Gwenetta Curry note in their epic co-authored piece, “On the Perils of Race Neutrality and Anti-Blackness,” (2018) that there are roughly 117,000 Black professors (70,737 Black women and 47,651 Black males) in the academy altogether against about 1.27 million whites (roughly 664,000 white men and 616,000 white women). Although there are slightly more white male academics than female, that dynamic is reversed for Black professors (approximately 23,000 more Black women than men in 2011–see American Association of University Professors, April 2014). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more Black women faculty at the lecturer, instructor, and assistant professors levels than Black men, but are at even rates at the associate and full professor ranks.

Professors by Race and Gender

And considering that Black males graduate high school at a near 1 out of 2 rate, we are not attending college or graduate school at comparable levels as Black women. In fact, there are more Black women students and faculty nationally than Black men (and I suspect at the staff level as well). Hell, I’ve never attended a college campus that did not have more Black women than Black men…EVER.

But what about Africana Studies? As many of us find ourselves ghettoized within academies in terms of resources, research support, and notoriety, are Black men excluding Black women from leadership? A National Council for Black Studies survey of 1,777 colleges and universities conducted 5 years ago suggests otherwise…*

NCBS Gender and Department Head Studies

Although there are slightly more Black male department/program heads than females, statistically speaking, these numbers are near parity (something that few fields can boast).** This would suggest that the few elite campuses to which Dr. Davis alludes may not be as reflective of Africana Studies’ gender dynamics as she may have assumed. The extreme levels of institutional sexism she asserts may be an institutional given within the academy, but not necessarily in the field of Africana Studies, and not necessarily with Black men in the academy.

*”African Amerian Studies 2013 – National Survey,” (Department of African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Fall 2013), p. 10.

**This study was performed using program/departmental websites to ascertain its data. These sites can be notoriously out of date. Also, this report was performed 5 years ago, so there’s a tangible possibility that there’re even more women heads than in 2015.

3 thoughts on “Is Africana Studies Sexist?: A Response to Dr. Carole Boyce Davis by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Excellent.
    I experienced this personally. After calling EVERY Africana Studies programs South AND West of Michigan, I recieved ZERO callbacks and one email reply. In the email reply I attempted to confirm an established meeting appt, and let her know I was driving 4 hours. No reply. So I stopped halfway en route and turned back. Never heard from her again and changed my area of interest. The ONLY serious serious and prolonged interaction was with the gentleman department head at a university in Michigan.

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