Doctoral Women of Color Coping with Racism and Sexism in the Academy

Delma M Ramos, Varaxy Yi
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 135-158

This qualitative study examined the racist and sexist experiences of doctoral women of color in the academy.

Doctoral women of color (e.g., Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Latina Americans, and Native Americans) continue to experience racism and sexism in academic spaces. While few studies have explored the experiences of doctoral students of color and doctoral women of color, with a larger emphasis on how they respond to racism, our study sought to further the knowledge and discourse surrounding the intersectionality of racism and sexism in academic contexts by examining the intersectionality of race and gender systems that impact the lived realities of doctoral women of color as women and people of color.

This qualitative study employed multiracial feminism and Mellor’s taxonomy of coping styles as theoretical foundations to explore and understand how doctoral women of color experience and navigate racist and sexist incidents.

The study contributes to research in various areas: (1) it expands our understanding of how doctoral women of color experience racism and sexism, (2) it deepens our perspective about the strategies and methods that they employ to negotiate and overcome these experiences, which can directly inform efforts to support and retain doctoral and other students of color, and (3) it encourages scholars to examine the experiences of doctoral women of color from an anti-deficit approach that acknowledges the social networks, skills, and knowledge that doctoral women of color rely on to disrupt and persist in inequitable contexts as they pursue academic success.

Our findings contribute a classification system that incorporates experiences of doctoral women of color with racism and sexism. Categories in this classification include covert, overt, and physical and material experiences. Our findings also present a classification system that represents navigational strategies of doctoral women of color, or the ways they respond to and overcome racist and sexist experiences. Categories in this classification include defensive, controlled, and direct strategies.

First, our findings suggest a critical need for administrators and educators to understand the experiences of women of color and recognize the impact these experiences have on their persistence and success in college. Research on doctoral women of color is limited and very little is known about the entirety of their experiences in graduate programs. This study addresses this gap by exploring how doctoral women of color persist despite the intersectionality of racist and sexist alienation and marginalization. It is important that faculty and staff engage in culturally relevant education and training in order to better understand how to support doctoral women of color as they face these situations.

We need more educators who engage in culturally relevant and responsive practices and pedagogy that seek to include their students’ whole identities and lever-age these identities in the classroom. Additionally, more educators need to be trained in ways to recognize and address racist and sexist incidents in their class-rooms and dismantle systems of oppression rather than reinforce them. Specifically, we need to better equip educators to recognize the hard-to-distinguish sexist incidents, which, as our participants suggested, are well concealed within the fabric of our gendered and sexualized society.

Second, this study can benefit those in program and resource development to create effective programming and strategies to engage these acts of resilience that enable women of color to succeed in graduate school. Rather than approaching the support and development of doctoral women of color from a deficit perspective of assisting them through challenges, it is more important to fully-engage with these students to recognize what coping strategies they have used that can better inform successful retention programs. Furthermore, mentorship from faculty was highlighted as an important means for participants to address and cope with their negative experiences. Thus, more mentoring relationships between faculty and the student and across student peer groups should be intentionally engaged. This is a system of support also noted in extant literature. As part of the doctoral socialization process, mentoring has many benefits for doctoral students. Specifically, for doctoral women of color, mentoring relationships can be a critical tool for supporting them in managing negative experiences, especially considering that it can minimize feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Our research contributes to the literature with emphasis on the ways in which doctoral women of color respond to and cope with racism and sexism. Women in this study recount racist and sexist experiences and describe their decision-making processes about how and whether to respond. There were specific reasons that shaped their responses and coping strategies, which highlight awareness and confidence in their individual abilities.

The study’s findings also contribute to and expand Mellor’s taxonomy, specifically the incorporation of sexism as a system inherently interlocked with racism. Current literature on doctoral women of color mainly highlights their experience with racism; this gap reinforces our contribution to the literature, specifically, in illuminating predetermined societal roles and expectations for doctoral women of color in academia.

Most importantly, our research highlights the assets and agency that doctoral women of color mobilize in the face of racism and sexism. These assets include long-term goals and aspirations, awareness of interlocking systems of oppression shaping their experience in academic environments, commitment to empowering their communities through education, and the support they find within their personal and academic networks. These assets and agency serve as foundation to challenge longstanding deficit perspectives on doctoral women of color in academic spaces and for faculty and program administrators to consider when developing support services.

Our findings encourage faculty, program administrators, and researchers to pay attention to racist and sexist issues as intersecting oppressions rather than distinct manifestations of prejudice to be confronted separately. Our findings also highlight the assets doctoral women of color rely on to overcome oppression and marginalization including their long-term goals and aspirations, awareness of interlocking systems of oppression shaping their experience in academic, commitment to empowering their communities through education, and the support they find within their personal and academic networks. Our hope is that this work encourages systems of higher education to create tangible ways to support doctoral women of color as they grapple with the multiple systems of domination that threaten their success in education, which is intertwined with success in other aspects of society.

Lastly, future research may explore how the matrix of domination mediates responses of doctoral women of color to racism and sexism. This philosophical inclination is linked to our decision to use Mellor’s taxonomy of coping styles as an introductory framework for our work in understanding navigational strategies. To that end, we argue that the taxonomy as it stands characterizes participants’ responses based on their immediate approach to incidents. This framing fails to include the timing someone might need to process and decide to how to respond. Mellor’s taxonomy positions participants who do not choose to respond immediately as compliant and acquiescent to racialized spaces and events. By doing so, we run the risk of oversimplifying and essentializing the complex processes individuals faced with racism and sexism undertake.

At the same time, future research can examine the connection between responses or coping styles and ways that participants are internally transformed in their abilities and desires to address future incidents. There is an inordinate amount of focus on how individuals interact with oppressive incidents and yet very little is known about the ways that these interactions shape future responses. Additionally, the ways that doctoral women of color navigate situations outside the academy is not explored. For example, some of our participants shared how racist and sexist encounters empowered them or inspired them to address other incidents and to interact with family and community members.

women of color, doctoral students, racist incidents, sexist incidents, oppression, marginalization, resistance, achievement, empowerment
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