Behind the Scenes: Withstanding our Status as Outsiders-Within

Withstanding our Status as Outsiders-Within: Professional Counterspaces for African American Women Student Affairs Administrators

By Nicole West

            I was asked to blog about the impetus for writing this research article and to provide readers with a “behind the scenes” foray into my writing process. And honestly this feels much like inviting hundreds of friends, strangers, acquaintances, critics, and colleagues to sit in on (and objectively pontificate about) a personal and private therapy session. A critical component of my personal strategy to withstand my status as an outsider-within is producing scholarship that “consists of ideas produced by Black women that clarify a standpoint of and for Black women” (Collins, 1986, p. S16). This article, much like the rest of my scholarly work, is grounded in my positionality as an African American woman, possessing a Black feminist consciousness, who has been employed at the same predominantly White institution (PWI) for the better part of two decades.

            Serving as a member of the African American Women’s Summit faculty and conducting research about the experiences of women participating in this professional counterspace developed by and for African American women in student affairs, can be a simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting experience. In addition to the normal self-doubt most writers face, this process is riddled with the emotional drudgery of being able to too closely identify with the experiences of my research participants, but diligently bracketing my experiences to try and preserve the trustworthiness of the research, all while resisting the multiplicative impact of being a gendered and racial minority writing about gendered and racial minorities. Despite these psychosocial pressures, I am motivated to persevere towards Collins’ (1986) premise that:

Black women’s activism in constructing Black-female spheres of influence may, in turn, affect their perceptions of the political and economic choices offered to them by oppressive structures, influence actions actually taken, and ultimately, alter the nature of the oppression they experience. (p. S24)

I believe the findings of this study have tremendous potential to assist Black women, as well as other women of color (and perhaps White women), in higher education to decipher and resist the microaggressive indecencies they encounter and to develop a healthy, self-defined standpoint.

Article abstract:

     Although engagement in social and academic counterspaces has been studied as a strategy used by African American college students to withstand racially inhospitable campus climates, very little research documents the impact of professional counterspaces on African American women student affairs administrators. The purpose of this basic interpretive qualitative study was to explore how consistently participating in the African American Women’s Summit (AAWS), a professional development program in the U.S. designed by and for African American women student affairs administrators (i.e., a professional counterspace), assisted these women working at PWIs to withstand their status as outsiders-within. Findings revealed three primary ways participants benefited from participating in the AAWS: identification and validation of oppressive experiences, dissemination of strategies to resist oppressions, and fortification of African American women’s standpoint. Based upon the findings of this study, it can be presumed that African American women in higher education may be better equipped to identify (and thus better prepared to respond to) microaggressive incidents, find greater access to survival and success strategies, and develop a healthier standpoint when engaged in culturally homogenous professional counterspaces that are developed by and for themselves.

 Collins, P. H. (1986). Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of Black feminist thought. Social Problems, 33(6), S14-S32. 

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