In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Black Undergraduate Women: Critical Race and Gender Perspectives

  • Introduction
  • Institutional Histories, Contexts, and Environments
  • Intersectional Identity Development
  • Navigating Stereotypes and Gendered Racial Discrimination
  • Expanding Definitions of Student Success
  • Theoretical Frameworks and Methodologies
  • Black Girls and Women Across the Educational Pipeline

Education Black Undergraduate Women: Critical Race and Gender Perspectives
Christa J. Porter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0315


Black women’s racial, ethnic, and indigenous histories and cultures in the United States and the diaspora are inextricably linked to historical legacies of survival and triumph. Black women’s unique place and space within the United States undergird who they are as individuals and collectively as Black women. Whether Black women acknowledge or disrupt it—the pervasiveness of Black women’s oppression does not disappear when they pursue higher education. Black women (learn to) understand how they make meaning of their identities and identity development as Black women across their lifespans and contexts. Some Black women (re)define who they are, some thrive and build community, others experience detrimental costs, and still, some experience all the above at different points in their lifetime. They navigate who they are in relation to their pre-collegiate socialization experiences (e.g., familial/communal upbringing, understanding of history, identity saliency). These pre-collegiate experiences influence how Black women engage and interact with others as they move into and through their tertiary environments. Collegiate contexts and environments vary—community college, single-sex, predominantly or historically white institutions (PWI or HWI), minority-serving institutions (MSI), public or private—and so too do the institutional agents who interact with and educate Black women (e.g., faculty, staff, and administrators). Through these interactions with others, Black women have often been rendered invisible or hyper-visible, meaning they are not considered in institutional decision making or tokenized for being “the only” or “one of few” in their academic discipline. Black women’s experiences are often conflated with white women when discussing gender or sexism, and Black men when discussing race or racism. Critical examination of Black women’s experiences requires one to name the situatedness of Black women within the context of institutionalized structures and systems. In other words, examination of Black undergraduate women must include critical and intersectional perspectives that overtly problematize practices and policies that sustain marginalization and perpetuate gendered racism against Black women.

Institutional Histories, Contexts, and Environments

Black women do not experience college in the same ways; institutional contexts (e.g., type, control, size, location), histories (e.g., legacy of desegregation and oppression), and environments (e.g., culture, demographics, policies) influence how and to what extent Black women matriculate as undergraduate students. History, context, and environment, as well as institutional agents and peers providing support and services to Black women, can impact Black women’s ability to learn, grow, develop, and live on or off campus (Leath, et al. 2021; Zamani 2003). Historical works such as Fleming 1983 and Perkins 1997 illuminated earlier experiences of Black women at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and elite colleges respectively. Blevins 2018 researched how Black women’s educational pursuits were negatively impacted by food, housing, and transportation insecurities in a community college. Unlike at a community college, wherein Black women do not spend much of their time outside of class, Black women students enrolled at 4-year PWIs or at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) have increased on-campus engagement because of curricular and co-curricular activities. Predominantly white or historically white institutions (HWIs) have higher enrollments of white students and/or were established to serve the needs of white students, and the number of students of color increased because of federal legislation. Yet, despite increases in numerical representation, supportive infrastructures were not necessarily created to meet the distinct needs of students of color. Dortch and Patel 2017, and Robinson, et al. 2013 identified Black women at PWIs/HWIs as often “the only” and “one of few” in their classrooms and academic disciplines, and thus experience marginalization based on other people’s perceptions of who/what Black women should be and do. However, Black women at HWIs and PWIs have found supportive spaces—whether facilitated by others or created on their own—to affirm and support their development and well-being despite institutional challenges (Croom, et al. 2017; Mitchell, et al. 2017). Bonner, et al. 2015 examined Black women’s experiences at Hispanic-serving institutions and the ways they experienced the campus contexts differently. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were created to foster familial-like environments wherein Black students’ ways of knowing and being are centered. Despite intentions however, Njoku and Patton 2017 asserted while Black students experience others who share cultural heritage and represent a critical mass, historical expectations of Black women are still pervasive and perpetuated.

  • Blevins, Darielle. 2018. Experiences with housing insecurity among African American women in community college. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College 25.1: 61–68.

    Blevins used results from the Community College Success Measure to identify challenges Black women faced in college. Food and housing insecurities negatively impacted Black women’s ability to survive and thrive in their community college environment.

  • Bonner, Fred A., II, Aretha F. Marbley, Marcheta P. Evans, and Petra Robinson. 2015. Triple jeopardy: A qualitative investigation of the experiences of nontraditional African American female students in one Hispanic-serving institution. Journal of African American Studies 19.1: 36–51.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12111-014-9287-4

    Nontraditional is a term used to identify age differences among students. Older Black women shared their experiences as students enrolled at a Hispanic-serving institution in the southwestern region of the United States.

  • Croom, Natasha N., Cameron C. Beatty, Lorraine D. Acker, and Malika Butler. 2017. Exploring undergraduate Black womyn’s motivations for engaging in “sister circle” organizations. NASPA Journal about Women in Higher Education 10.2: 216–228.

    DOI: 10.1080/19407882.2017.1328694

    Black womyn collectives such as sister circles serve to support and affirm intersectional identities and offer support. Participants in this study decided to engage such organizations to build community, access role models, and create spaces wherein they could be themselves.

  • Dortch, Deniece, and Chirag Patel. 2017. Black undergraduate women and their sense of belonging in STEM at predominantly white institutions. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education 10.2: 202–215.

    DOI: 10.1080/19407882.2017.1331854

    Black undergraduate women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors experience isolation at highly selective, predominantly white institutions. Black women students discussed how they navigated racial and gender microagressions.

  • Fleming, Jacqueline. 1983. Black women in Black and white college environments: The making of a matriarch. Journal of Social Issues 39.3: 41–54.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1983.tb00154.x

    The results of a large-scale examination of environmental conditions for Black women students at predominantly white and predominantly Black institutions varied. Institutional contexts differentially fostered characteristics and images to which Black women should ascribe.

  • Leath, Seanna, Maiya Whiteside, and Martinque K. Jones. 2021. “They were on my side”: An exploration of inclusive experiences with administrators and faculty among Black undergraduate women at PWIs. Journal of College Student Development 62.6: 675–691.

    DOI: 10.1353/csd.2021.0065

    Black women students described their campus experiences as inclusive and felt supported by administrators and faculty at two PWIs. Administrators and faculty play important roles in fostering inclusive classrooms, implementing programming, and establishing equitable policies to support Black women’s adjustment to college.

  • Mitchell, Donald, Jr., John Gipson, Jakia Marie, and Tiffany Steele. 2017. Intersectional value? A pilot study exploring educational outcomes for African American women in historically Black sororities versus non-historically Black sororities. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors 12.2: 43–58.

    Black undergraduate women’s participation in sororities include Black and non-Black Greek lettered organizations. Authors highlight explored differences in involvement, academic outcomes, and racial and cultural identity support among Black women.

  • Njoku, Nadrea R., and Lori D. Patton. 2017. Explorations of respectability and resistance in constructions of Black womanhood at HBCUs. In Critical perspectives of Black women and college success. Edited by L. D. Patton and N. N. Croom, 143–157. New York: Routledge.

    Authors critically examine constructions of Black womanhood within historically Black colleges and universities in their respective research studies. Black women participants embraced their own re-constructions of Black womanhood beyond a singular experience.

  • Perkins, Linda M. 1997. The African American female elite: The early history of African American women in the seven sister colleges, 1880–1960. Harvard Educational Review 67.4: 718–756.

    DOI: 10.17763/haer.67.4.136788875582630j

    Perkins illuminated Black women’s experiences at the seven private northeastern colleges founded for women in the 19th century. Through the historical chronology of Black women’s enrollment at these colleges, Perkins narrated individual Black woman trailblazers and details institutions’ legacies of exclusion.

  • Robinson, Subrina J., Elena Esquibel, and Marc D. Rich. 2013. “I’m still here”: Black female undergraduates’ self-definition narratives. World Journal of Education 3.5: 57–71.

    DOI: 10.5430/wje.v3n5p57

    Black women participants made meaning of who they were based on the intersection of their race and gender. They highlighted examples of being the only one and having to be strong within their predominantly white classrooms.

  • Zamani, Eboni. 2003. African American women in higher education. In New directions for student services 104. Edited by M. F. Howard-Hamilton, 5–18. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Zamani named differences among Black women’s experiences in higher education based on institutional types and contexts. Zamani addressed variation among historically Black colleges and universities and predominantly white institutions; community colleges and proprietary schools; and single-sex or women’s colleges.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.