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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Warren

The Insidious Presence of Plantation System in Predominantly White Institutes

To face the realities of our lives is not a reason for despair—despair is a tool of your enemies. Facing the realities of our lives gives us motivation for action. For you are not powerless… You know why the hard questions must be asked. It is not altruism, it is self-preservation—survival…Audrey Lorde

First off, I've bent over backward for 21 years to outperform my white colleagues. First, I did what white and "white-acting" Black folks told me to do. Then, I went above and beyond by focusing my work solely on issues that affect Black communities. And yet, while I soared in my field, mediocre white academics were getting all the praise and promotions. Welcome to the two-faced world of academia from someone who knows it and feels it. Perhaps my ideas are a bit radical for some.

Yet, Black women live in the past, present, and future simultaneously when embedded in predominantly white institutions of learning in America. To make change, we need to understand how historical racism is (re)produced in environments today, with future iterations that can continue to undermine our common humanity, especially since ‘race’ is a social construction. Or, to use contemporary terms, a form of gaslighting both Black and Whites.


Thelin's research (2004) says universities were built to maintain colonial power structures.

They were designed for elite White males and reinforced all sorts of negative beliefs about Black women. Stephanie Masta (2019) adds that education itself is kind of messed up—it's been used to both oppress marginalized groups, such as Black women and assimilate them into colonial cultures, like PWIs. Sharit Kumar Bhowmik (1980) explains that plantations are historically linked to colonialism. The plantation existed as an isolated institution that destroyed indigenous cultures and norms to systematize entire social orders and members’ behaviors to maintain social order and stability.

PWIs are isolated environments. PWI’s exist as small cities on several acres of land, usually surrounded by and sometimes fused within impoverished communities. Many junior Black women professors have to leave supportive educational communities and sometimes their families to take a university position in another state. Black women faculty have to be within a space in which they hear and see very little of themselves in their peers and very little of their particular worldviews and sensibilities are respected and accepted. Isolation is an ideal environment in which PWIs can terrorize Black women with anti-black sentiments and actions, much like a plantation.

Now, some might argue that calling universities plantations is a stretch. I mean, Black folks on campus aren't forced to be there, right? As allochronism thrives in whites and institutional systems based on ideas of Black women that are stuck in a time warp and don't match up with real-life experiences. The academy feels like a (re)production of the plantation system or a neoplantation, especially for Black women who are paraded around like tokens of diversity.

Durant Jr. (1999) notes that a plantation is a complex system with its own set of rules, hierarchy, and power dynamics. First off, knowledge is what people in the system believe is real. Next is the emotional connection between two people based on the objectives of slavery and the norms that govern and control behavior. The status of where you fit into the social puzzle and the pecking order that lays out who's in power. Power is the ability to control what others do based on following the rules of conformity. Sanctions are distributed depending on whether you play by the rules. Last but not least, access to and the allocation of resources that make the whole system work. Each of these pieces is crucial to keeping the plantation machine running—much like a university.

So, let's get real for a moment. A bunch of experts have looked into the extra workload that falls on Black academics. We're talking about more mentoring, advising, and committee work. Although some scholars have pointed out that these unequal expectations are discriminatory, only a few have traced them back to the whole colonial system. Black women in the PWIs are not just expected to do more; the kind of work they're asked to do mirrors domestic servitude. Black women are leaned on for emotional support by everyone—students of color, white students, and even white faculty. And we are often the ones cleaning up the mess when someone else messes up, like taking over interim roles or heading committees after a scandal. Worst part? This extra labor is usually neither paid nor even recognized.

It's a cycle that traps Black women in roles that echo colonial-era servitude. This all lines up with anti-Blackness, which is soaring egregiously now. PWI denies Black women’s humanity through various forms of violence (e.g., poor performance reviews, tenure denials, white faculty diagnosing you with imposter syndrome like they are psychiatrists) carried out within the ivory tower. In PWIs, physical harm flows from denigration and disrespect of our humanity and efforts, leading to emotional, spiritual, and mental burdens. Think about the constant microaggressions (that I still call racism), being made to feel like a token, or even doubting your own worthiness. All of this mess contributes to what some call racial battle fatigue, and it's a daily reality for many Black women faculty in PWIs. This is all part of the ivory tower hypocrisy and intellectual lynching on the neoplantation of PWIs, which resemble the social order and hierarchy of traditional plantations.

The boards of trustees that are majority white in PWIs are in power—the masters—to make the racist sanctioned and unsanctioned institutional policies that the overseers—white professors, deans, chairs, et cetera to ensure policies are carried out or punitive measures are adopted. The funny thing is that black faculty never really know or are provided access to the policies by which they exert control. And just like on a plantation, the in-power whites believe it is their job to control meaning-making. They are accustomed to being the ones telling folks what is real and what isn't and creating and disseminating information to ensure they maintain white power and privilege. They want Black women faculty to enact white epistemologies and worldviews to control their authentic ways of being and doing. This is antithetical to their postulations of academic freedom and diversity, equity, and inclusivity efforts.

Just because they need us to fulfill some quota doesn't mean diversity, equity, and inclusivity efforts are changing their attitudes or prejudices about us. It is time for PWIs and their masters and overseers to see the reality of how Black women are affected. Yes, there are books with words in them that share our testimonies, but they are not the audience. It is time for deeper reflection among Whites in PWIs on how they consciously and unconsciously reproduce white power and privilege by not opening up the playing field to variability, dissimilar but complimentary epistemologies, worldviews, ways of approaching research and producing scholarship, and styles of communicating and expressing oneself in the ivory tower. However, that cannot happen until they understand the intersectional racism with which they are burdened.

Dr. Ma'at is the Founder and Director of Black Dot Institute and Principal Consultant at Akila Ka Ma'at Agency (AKMA), which focuses on the root causes of systemic and institutional racism. AKMA is dedicated deconstructing the ways in which communication, behavior, and environments (re)produce and sustain dichotomies of difference and finding solutions through human design (HD) strategies. HD is a tool for self-empowerment within one's life that Dr. Ma'at uses to help people accommodate her clients' individuality in ways that potentially change habits tied to dichotomies difference, creating a more productive and positive life, career, and work environment.


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