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Improving race relationships

She doesn’t back down from a chal- lenge, take things for granted, or lose hope. Sociology professor Kristie Ford is all about engagement.

Only the second tenured black female in Skidmore’s history, Ford is laser-focused on elucidating what it takes to create campuses where everyone can under- stand, talk about, and foster healthy rela- tionships and self- images among people of all ethnicities, in- comes, genders, and ages. And she puts her research to work as Skidmore’s new di- rector of intercultural studies and as direc-

tor of the Intergroup Relations Program that recently developed into an academ- ic minor, making Skidmore the first col- lege in the nation to offer an IGR minor. Raised in Ohio and educated at Amherst College and the University of Michigan, Ford knows firsthand what it’s like to encounter—and overcome—stig- matizing presumptions such as that black academics are not as prepared intellectu- ally as their white counterparts or that a political agenda is always embedded in a course taught by faculty of color. Seeking what she calls “core narra- tives” that emerge in face-to-face inter- views, she has probed questions like how white students perceive and interact with female faculty members of color, in a study in the Journal of Higher Education. She found that women of color at one university often restrict their dress, lan- guage, or gestures to establish bound- aries with students. She also heard that white students sometimes treated them inappropriately; one reported having a paper thrown at her. Also reported was white students’ overt surprise at the eru- dition of female professors of color. She has also researched how white students define and act on their own perceived race roles, and how frank inter- and intragroup conversation can help them gain new understandings of



white identity and racism—notably, the white students were able to examine the implications of their whiteness without the presence and input of peers of color. Related work with students of color and white and multiracial students addresses how inter- and intraracial dialogues can benefit students both immediately and later in society and the workplace, where they can bring to bear enlightened attitudes and behavior. Ford believes such struc- tured dialogues can foster understanding, personal growth, con- flict resolution, inter- group friendship, and

social change. Findings from these stud- ies appeared in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and Equity and Excellence in Education. In a Symbolic Interaction article, Ford looked at how black male students, through work and relationship choices, project a “fake masculinity,” built on notions of how a black male is “supposed” to look and act, or a “real man” identity, reflecting values like responsibility. She says, “Slavery remains a fun - damental historical marker in understanding how stereotypi- cal images of black men have been created and maintained from the past to the present.” She cites the “happy-go-lucky black Sambo” image that helped support white domi- nation. Then the strong “angry black man” image emerged from the civil rights and black power movements; however, even that command- ing presence is often overshad- owed by media characteriza- tions of black men as thugs, she notes. Since pervasive stereo- types also affect self-image, she hopes “this research gives voice to black men struggling to challenge

inaccurate cultural constructions of black masculinity.”

Ford loves the small, liberal arts col- lege environment but admits she’s some- times exhausted by the demands on her to represent faculty of color on a slew of campus committees. “There just aren’t enough of us. That’s a problem to solve. Skidmore is going in the right direction, though, increasing the number of stu- dents and faculty of color and expanding the opportunities to candidly examine and improve race relations.”

“The goal,” she says, “is not to make

everyone ‘the same.’ The goal is social justice.” —Helen S. Edelman ’74


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