Centering the Diverse Experiences of Black Women Undergraduates

In 2008, Kaba asked, “Are Black American women the new model minority?” (p. 309). On the surface, this question seems harmless and suggests that the model minority characteristic and stereotype is aspirational, transferable, and appropriate. The evidence he provides is both provocative and troubling. It is provocative because it begs scholars across disciplines and fields to engage in specific ideas and questions about Black women, their individual and collective experiences, the structures, systems, and ideologies that contribute to those experiences, and the idea of success. Kaba’s question is also troubling given numerous political, social, and cultural critiques of the model minority stereotype as applied to Asian and Asian American racial and ethnic groups (Lee, 2015; Yu, 2007). Moreover, his transference situates Black women as a monolithic group of “super women” who withstand, resist, and persist no matter the political, material, or personal (i.e., emotional, physical, mental, spiritual) detriments.

Using post-secondary enrollment and degree attainment data as a major exemplar of such achievement, Kaba’s (2008) use of the hegemonic device of “model minority” endangers the support, advocacy, and visibility that undergraduate Black women deserve as they choose, matriculate, and complete college. It also discredits the multiple ways in which they are marginalized within education and society. Moreover, this narrative erases their lived experiences from the research and policy agendas that are critical to addressing their needs prior to, during, and beyond college. The model minority myth has taken a foothold in higher education research and practice, as Black women are theoretically and literally erased in lieu of explorations in which all the Black undergraduates are men and all of the women undergraduates are White, forcing Black women collegians to be brave and much more (Crenshaw, 1989; Hull, Bell, Scott & Smith, 1982).

In this special issue, we challenge these discourses while also illuminating the diverse experiences of undergraduate Black women. The manuscripts in this special issue reveal structural and deeply embedded issues that shape Black women’s lives as they pursue college. This special issue presents scholarship that centers the voices of undergraduate Black women within and across multiple contexts and perspectives. It also reveals the unique challenges and triumphs of college as situated in recent research focused on undergraduate Black women. Rosales and Person (2003) stated, “The myth that Black women have achieved high levels of educational … attainment over the past 20 years may contribute to the lack of attention by colleges and universities” (p. 53). This special issue brings greater attention to Black women in college and engages educators, researchers, and policymakers in research perspectives that promote clear findings, implications, and recommendations for serving and supporting undergraduate Black women.

In “Black women students at predominantly White universities: Narratives of identity politics, well-being and leadership mobility,” Hotchkins explores Black women student leaders and their navigation of raced and gendered stressors while engaged on campus. Miller also writes about Black women students and their engagement on campus in “Black girls rock: The impact of integration and involvement on the success of Black college women.” In particular, she focuses on the relationship between their self-reported gains and the level of social integration and student involvement they reported. Collectively, these works suggest that Black women’s presence at and involvement within diverse campus settings presents both challenges and successes. These authors’ contributions also provide an appropriate transition to Kelley et al.’s, “Experiences of Black alumnae at PWIs: Did they thrive?.” In this article, the authors invite Black women college graduates to reflect on their experiences, the expectations placed upon them and how they successfully maneuvered through college despite the oppressions they faced. One particular aspect of Kelley et al.’s article is the advocacy in which their participants engaged. Such advocacy was also represented among participants in Agosto’s, “Black women leading as resident assistants-students: Bridges, mentors, advice givers, and filters.” Their advocacy, however, was not without consequences. Agosto centers Black women resident assistants and their capacity to support residents despite the failure of their institutions to provide similar support to them. Moreover, Agosto’s findings reveal a conundrum that some Black women face in a presumably colorblind and post-racial world, that is, experiencing racial oppression as an individual while simultaneously failing to clearly see and articulate the structural nature of racism. Dortch and her colleagues’ article, “Black undergraduate women and their sense of belonging in STEM at predominantly White institutions,” reveals the lack of belongingness and inclusion experienced by undergraduate Black women as they pursue STEM fields. Dortch et al.’s study confirms the reality that few Black women have true access to STEM majors and sheds light on the need for more intentional support directed toward increasing their presence and attainment in STEM. One opportunity for assisting Black women with interrogating and articulating oppression at micro and macro levels as well as grappling with microaggressive environments is through the creation of sister circles and similar organizations. Croom et al.’s “Exploring undergraduate black womyn’s motivations for engaging in “sister circle” organizations” provides readers with a critical exploration of sister circle groups and the value they hold for Black women in college.

In sum, this special issue continues the growing national conversation on Black women and girls in education through the use of intersectionality, Black feminist thought, critical race feminism, and similar frameworks that center Black women’s experiences. Although no work is comprehensive enough to capture the entirety of Black women’s experiences as students in higher education, this special issue should be viewed as yet another central and critical contribution to the historical works of Noble (1956), Cuthbert (1942), and Fleming (1983) and contemporary works recently published by scholars such as Patton and Croom (2017), Patton, Crenshaw, Haynes, and Watson (2016), Chambers (2011), Chambers and Sharpe (2012), and Winkle-Wagner (2009, 2015).