Dawn Yvonne Matthews, LaShae Roberts, CyNedra Nina Flanagan, & Rose-May Frazier, Florida State University
Editor’s Note: To hear more on this topic from this team, plan to join them on April 27, 2021 for a Webinar.
In 2013, CaShawn Thompson coined the term “Black Girl Magic” resulting in a social movement to honor Black women’s beauty and brilliance (Thomas, 2015). Black Girl Magic has since become indoctrinated into Black culture and used to combat the devaluing of Black women in society (Halliday & Brown, 2018; Hobson & Owens, 2019). Black Girl Magic does not assert false ideologies of superhuman abilities, but instead gives language to the legacy of resilience Black women possess. Within higher education, Black Girl Magic is characterized by how Black women in college combat stereotypes, navigate hostile environments, and earn college degrees in a system that has perpetually ostracized them (Morton & Parsons, 2018).
This article aims to highlight the experiences of Black women as college students and aid the practitioners supporting them. As Black women who are scholars and professionals, we as authors offer insight that is grounded in research and our personal experiences.
For several decades, Black women have represented the fastest-growing group of bachelor’s degree attainers, and to date are only second to Latina women (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). Coupled with the warranted attention toward decreasing enrollment and challenges of Black college men and conflicting labels such as “at-risk” and the “new model minority,” Black women’s needs are often overlooked (Gasman, 2007; Kaba, 2008; Lee & Freeman, 2012). Nonetheless, Black college women have displayed the capacity and audacity to succeed.
Below are some specific challenges Black women encounter in the college environment. We acknowledge the different climates and legacies associated with institutional types such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and historically White institutions (HWIs). However, the unique history of racism and sexism in American education affirms Black women's shared connections across various campus environments (Collins, 2002; hooks, 2000; Matthews, 2020; Wilder et al., 2013).
Imposter Syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the internal belief that you are not as competent or knowledgeable as others and fear that you will be exposed as a fraud (Peteet et al., 2015; Pennie Sims, 2020). This psychological belief tricks Black women into thinking they cannot achieve at the same level as their White female or male peers. This leads to self-doubting and setting low expectations. This syndrome increases in environments where Black women’s experiences are devalued and when they are unable to build community. Marginalized students who experience imposter syndrome may experience a lack of engagement in academic pursuits, a negative impact on their mental health, and develop unhealthy expectations of success (Pennie Sims, 2020; Peteet et al., 2015).
Tokenism. Black women may feel tokenized based on being the only Black person, the only woman, or the only Black woman (Morton & Parsons, 2018; Winkle-Wagner & McCoy, 2018). Tokenism is an implied responsibility of having to represent one’s entire race or gender (Hughes, 2020; Taulton, 2020). Some Black women may also feel that their dual identity is leveraged simply to illustrate a diversity facade. These students are not oblivious to when they are being tokenized and subsequently must negotiate how to navigate this burden with the simultaneous realities of the access to opportunities that may accompany being tokenized.
Discrimination & Stereotyping. Black women are battling many stereotypes that transfer from media into academic environments. According to Corbin et al. (2018), media showcases Black women as overly aggressive, angry, and ghetto. Subsequently, Black women in college must master the art of combating stereotypes and microaggressions while maintaining their identity. For example, the “angry Black woman” stereotype permits non-Black women to question the validity of an experience and often leads to Black women's silencing. Behavior associated with such stereotypes sustains hostile environments for Black women in college.
Mental Health. On average, White and Black women have comparable mental illness rates, but Black women are more likely to have poorer health outcomes and less likely to seek services (Carter & Rossi, 2019; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). Persistent stress and emotion suppression in Black college women could look like unhealthy and emotional eating, disruptive sleep patterns, high functioning anxiety or depression, and reluctance to self-care for fear of appearing weak (Carter & Rossi, 2019; Woods-Giscombe & Black, 2010). Black women who experience higher levels of gendered-racial microaggressions are at an increased risk of poorer mental health outcomes (Martins et al., 2018).
Addressing the Challenges
The successful ascension of the first Black and Asian woman to the vice presidency, Kamala Harris, is significant to the legacy of Black college women. However, the backdrop of this monumental moment includes the plight of equity against racial and gender injustices. Campaigns like Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, and various non-profit efforts to subdue COVID-19’s impact on Black communities have highlighted the realities of police violence against Black communities, Black women’s invisibility, and health disparities linked to systemic racism. While these may seem unrelated to work in higher education, the reality is that students, especially Black women, are directly impacted and carry this weight into their advising and coaching sessions.
Acknowledging. Awareness of Black college women’s experiences and issues facing other marginalized communities is an essential component of addressing the aforementioned challenges. Advisors and coaches must make efforts to stay abreast of events that are shaping the lives of Black women and contribute to their identity development. This awareness must include acknowledgment of the intersecting identities that Black women carry. Beyond Blackness and womanhood, understanding the needs and resources for those identifying as LGBTQ+, Latinx, international, first-generation, high-achieving, and countless other categories, is vital to ensuring that institutions of higher education are serving them holistically. When working with Black women, it is important for coaches and advisors to use a unique approach that communicates understanding and awareness around the cultural influences the student may be navigating. As with all students, these identities shape the interests and needs of Black women thus affirming approaches to advising that promote deep engagement and employ strategies of Socratic questioning and active listening.
Supporting. For many cultures within the Black diaspora, community and family are embedded into one’s core values. As Black women, we often subscribe to approaches of “other mothering” in our quest to support Black students. Othermothers “assist blood-mothers by sharing mothering responsibilities” (Collins, 2002, p. 178). This is linked to the history of the enslavement of Africans in America which resulted in the dismantling of family structures. The culture of “looking after each other’s children” and community child-rearing that emerged transferred into educational settings (Guiffrida, 2007).
This history provides insight into the tendency for Black college women to gravitate toward staff with shared identities as their own, due to feeling comfortable, safe, and supported. Othermother relationships are of extreme value to Black college women and instrumental to their social and cultural capital (Guiffrida, 2007) and further validate the importance of cultural representation among advisors, coaches, and administrators.
Subsequently, non-Black advisors and coaches should support the need for such same-identity relationships to exist. Additionally, they may need to make intentional efforts to connect with Black women college students to prevent their colleagues who are Black women from burnout by serving as mentors. Mentorship should include formal and informal advisement, which may be academic or personal (Edwards, 2003). It must be genuine and consider the needs of each student. These support strategies are significant influencers in academic achievement and sense of belonging for Black women in college.
The advisor or administrator's role is to provide resources offered by the campus community. Carter and Rossi (2019) recommend connecting Black women to clinical or therapeutic resources, normalizing the challenges of navigating campus culture, working to remove the stigma that goes along with seeking mental health support, and helping students process the difficulties of being a Black woman in their environment if they initiate the conversation.
It is not about saying the right thing, but about providing a safe space where students can talk openly about their challenges. As an advisor or coach, be familiar with your campus resources and provide referrals as needed. This may also entail encouraging Black women to set boundaries and rest. If you notice a student feeling overwhelmed by meeting others' needs, prompt reflection by asking how they are meeting their own needs so that they do not overextend themselves. The need to support Black college women is essential to combating the challenges they experience.
Advocating. In addition to support, Black women that are navigating college can also benefit from professionals serving as allies and accomplices to their individual needs at the institutional level. Allyship encompasses activism that is displayed through supportive behavior and solidarity efforts with marginalized communities. Comparably, being an accomplice entails utilizing one’s privilege to dismantle or disrupt systems of oppression (Clemens, 2017; Desnoyers-Colas, 2019). The responsibilities of an accomplice and an ally are both essential to ensuring that Black women in college can succeed and actualize their aspirations in college or beyond. Advisors and coaches are often positioned to serve in these capacities, given their expertise from engaging with students and administrators alike. As students work diligently toward earning a college degree and fighting for a seat at the table, it is our responsibility as administrators, advisors, coaches, and mentors to use our seat at the higher education table to advocate on their behalf.
As the future of higher education becomes increasingly unprecedented, institutions of higher education must support Black college women and acknowledge their Black Girl Magic. Regardless of our identities as administrators, advisors, and coaches, we must reflect on how we currently serve Black college women. Guiding questions must include:
- Does your institution employ Black women to ensure that representation exists?
- Are there courses and programming that cater to the needs and culture of Black women?
- Is data examined with consideration to the persistence, engagement, and graduation of Black women?
- Do Black women feel able to take advantage of the services offered on campus?
- Are there ongoing efforts to improve the experiences of all marginalized student groups?
It is not enough to answer yes to one of the questions above. If you cannot say yes to all, begin conversations at your institution on developing the space needed for Black women to engage deeply in the campus community. While Black Girl Magic is often leveraged to help Black college women survive, we owe it to them to create environments where this “magic” becomes more than enough and allows them to thrive.
Dedication: This article is dedicated to all of the Black women whose lives were taken due to acts of police brutality, over-policing, unjust laws, and various forms of senseless violence that have plagued our nation and directly impacted Black women, Black men, Black people, and all communities of color. We recognize the power we have in acknowledging their lives and continuing to advocate for justice.
Dawn Yvonne Matthews
Florida State University
Advising First Center for College Life Coaching
Florida State University
CyNedra Nina Flanagan
Advising First Center for Exploratory Students
Florida State University
Florida State University
Carter, L., & Rossi, A. (2019). Embodying strength: The origins, representations, and socialization of the strong black woman ideal and its effect on Black women’s mental health. Women & Therapy, 43(3–4), 289–300.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, November 22). CDC health disparities and inequalities report—United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 62(3). https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/other/su6203.pdf
Clemens, C. (2017, June 5). Ally or accomplice? The language of activism. Teaching Tolerance. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/ally-or-accomplice-the-language-of-activism
Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.
Corbin, N. A., Smith, W. A., & Garcia, J. R. (2018). Trapped between justified anger and being the strong Black woman: Black college women coping with racial battle fatigue at historically and predominantly White institutions. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 31(7), 626–643.
Desnoyers-Colas, E. F. (2019). Talking loud and saying nothing: Kicking faux ally-ness to the curb by battling racial battle fatigue using white accomplice-ment. Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 8(4), 100–105.
Edwards, A. (2003) Mothering the mind: Women of colour creating supportive communities to increase the academic success rates of minority students. Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 5(2), 144–153. https://jarm.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/jarm/article/viewFile/2037/1245
Gasman, M. (2007). Swept under the rug? A historiography of gender and Black colleges. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 760–805.
Guiffrida, D. (2007) Othermothering as a framework for understanding African American students’ definition of student-centered faculty. The Journal of Higher Education 72(6), 720–723.
Halliday, A. S., & Brown, N. E. (2018). The power of Black Girl Magic anthems: Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and “feeling myself” as political empowerment. Souls, 20(2), 222–238.
Hobson, J., & Owens, T. (2019). Black Girl Magic beyond the hashtag: Twenty-first-century acts of self-definition. University of Arizona Press.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press.
Hughes, T. T. (2020). A study of factors affecting the advancement of Black faculty and staff at predominantly White institutions (Publication No. 2455764300) [Doctoral dissertation, Trevecca Nazarene University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Kaba, A. J. (2008). Race, gender and progress: Are Black American women the new model minority? Journal of African American Studies, 12(4), 309–335.
Lee, W. Y., & Freeman, K. (2012). From diplomas to doctorates: The success of Black women in higher education and its implications for equal educational opportunities for all. Stylus Publishing.
Matthews, D. Y. (2020). We’re all fighting: Experiences of Black women HBCU graduates enrolled in HWI doctoral programs (Publication No. 2447513666) [Doctoral dissertation, Florida State University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Martins, T. V., Lima, T. J. S. D., & Santos, W. S. (2020). Effects of gendered racial microaggressions on the mental health of Black women. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 25, 2793–2802.
Morton, T. R., & Parsons, E. C. (2018). #BlackGirlMagic: The identity conceptualization of Black women in undergraduate STEM education. Science Education, 102(6), 1363–1393.
Pennie Sims, L. M. (2020). Understanding the relationships among growth mindset, imposter syndrome, and academic behaviors in high school girls of color (Publication No. 28024325). [Doctoral dissertation, Saint Mary’s College of California]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Peteet, B. J, Montgomery, L., & Weekes, J. C. (2015). Predictors of imposter phenomenon among talented ethnic minority undergraduate students. The Journal of Negro Education, 84(2), 175–186.
Taulton, L. J. (2020). Perceptions of Black women administrators: Implications of race and gender on career advancement at predominantly White institutions (Publication No. 2436812748) [Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Thomas, D. (2015, September 9). Why everyone’s saying ‘Black girls are magic.’ Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-everyones-saying-black-girls-are-magic-20150909-htmlstory.html
U.S. Department of Education (2019). National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Degrees and Other Formal Awards Conferred" surveys, 1976-77 and 1980-81; Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), "Completions Survey" (IPEDS-C:90-99); and IPEDS Fall 2000 through Fall 2018, Completions component.
Wilder, J., Jones, T. B., & Osborne-Lampkin, L. (2013). A profile of Black women in the 21st century academy: Still learning from the “outsider-within.” Journal of Research Initiatives, 1(1), 5.
Winkle-Wagner, R., & McCoy, D. L. (2018). Feeling like an “alien” or “family”? Comparing students and faculty experiences of diversity in STEM disciplines at a PWI and an HBCU. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), 593–606.
Woods-Giscombe, C. L., & Black, A. (2010). Mind-body interventions to reduce risk for health disparities related to stress and strength among African American women: The potential of mindfulness-based stress reduction, loving-kindness, and the NTU therapeutic framework. Complementary Health Practice Review, 15(3), 115–131.
Cite this article using APA style as: Mathews, D.Y., Roberts, L., Flanagan, C.N., Frazier, R. (2021, March). When black girl magic isn’t enough: Supporting black college women through advising & coaching. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). [insert url here]