‘The most disrespected person in America is the black woman’ (Malcolm X)
As a woman of African Caribbean descent and a middle leader in education, the conversations surrounding institutional racism and representation were particularly at the forefront of my personal experiences and encounters with racism. This work became even more topical and pressing due to the implications they have in a world that is becoming more aware and allowing conversations to be far more equitable.
The role of the media and implicit and unconscious bias is at the forefront of this discourse. For instance, in 2019, Trevor Phillips during an interview for The Guardian described diversity in the UK media as being ‘tokenistic’ and that as a result of this, there has a been a ‘mishandling of race issues’(1). The application of the term ‘tokenistic’ can be used and used to discuss the lack of diversity across all sections of society (1).
To begin with, I am going to bring in the idea of whiteness and power. MacIntosh in her seminal essay discusses how there is an assumption that the ‘person in charge’ will be the same race as you. This is an idea that I want to delve into, the notion of assumption and power (2). The issue of Whiteness is that it is, for the most part, largely invisible and therefore difficult to analyse and critique. However, when considering the prevalence and relevance that whiteness has when considering power, privilege, and hierarchy, it is an important place to begin. It is also an uncomfortable place to begin. However, now is not the time to shy away from things being uncomfortable. For us as women, particularly women from any minority, discomfort has been the burden that we have been forced to bear in a myriad of ways.
When considering whiteness, we should see the space that Black women inhabit in a much more nuanced manner. However, the representation of black women in the media has been largely myopic. West, in her 2016 chapter titled ‘Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Bad girls of reality television: Media representations of Black women’ seeks to dismantle the archetypes that are prevalent as used in the media representation of black women’(3). The first thing that is interesting to note is that these archetypes have also become stereotypes, roles that seek to reinforce a negative image of black women. As a result of these images the idea of black women becomes synonymous with aggression and overt sexualisation. If in anyway different, the roles are diminished to be very little, a quick tokenistic hello. Whilst this is changing- thanks to Black female led television shows such as ‘I May Destroy you’ and ‘Insecure’, there is still significant work to do. My question is whether and how these images create obstacles for black women in leadership positions.
In the UK, there is a lacuna of representation within educational leadership field. We must realise that Black women account for ‘0.2%’ of Headteachers in the country’(4). This is significantly low and seems to coincide with the issue of ‘erasure’ that is apparent in the media. However, the question here must relate to the obstacles that are leading to a lack of representation of black women in UK educational leadership. The Miller Report proclaims that ‘Institutional racism can reinforce racist attitudes’ and ‘behaviours that blight the experience’ of ‘staff from minority ethnic backgrounds.’ This clearly indicates that the issues of racism create a tangible difference in the experience of staff(5).
There have been studies that consider the specific issues that Black women face as leaders in education. I have found that like most areas of race discourse, this is written from a largely American perspective, there are still parallels that exist in the UK educational field. Alston argues that the “appearance of a possible problem regarding the transference of power from White men to Black women is not really the issue” (6).The comment of the transference of power really struck me. This seems to be looking beyond the obvious solution to thwarting racism. Is this arguing that this idea of transference oversimplifies the issues?
The answer is that these issues have continuously been over simplified. The complexity and intricacy of being a black woman in any field has so far been confined by white supremacy. This notion pf whiteness that will always prohibit true and honest representation. As black female leaders, our roles may seem confined to what the media inextricably perpetuates, however, we will constantly exercise resistance in ways that are expected, unexpected and everything in between.
1. Press Association (2019)”UK media is tokenistic in its attitude to diversity, says Trevor Phillips” Guardian (accessed 10th June 2020)
2. Mcintosh, P (1989) “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Wellesley College Centre for Research on Women, Wellesley, MA 02131 (accessed 2nd April 2020)
3. West, C (2013) ‘Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Bad girls of reality television: Media representations of Black women’ in the book ‘Representations of Black women in the media: the damnation of black womanhood’ Routledge
4.Author unknown (January 2020) ‘School teacher workforce’ (Gov.uk)
5. Miller, P (2019) “International Studies in Educational Administration” Volume 47 CCEAM (accessed 1st July)
6. Alston, J (2000) “Missing form action: Where Are the Black Female School Superintendents?” Bowling Green State University. Available from: Sage Journals (accessed 27th May 2020)