Being Black and Woman In the Academy
In June I wrote a Facebook post reflecting on my experiences as a Black woman in higher education. The response to the post was overwhelming with so many Black professionals in higher education (and other fields) sharing that they too had had similar experiences. The likes, loves, and shares confirmed a sad truth that, deep down, I already knew—my experiences with covert and overt racism in higher education were not unique.
My post on June 4, 2020 read:
“It was 4 years ago last month that I left my last position in higher education. Many people could not understand why I would leave my position as an Associate Dean of Students and Affirmative Action Officer. What many around the world are experiencing because of the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others is the reason I left higher education.
I started my higher education career immediately after I completed my undergraduate degree. Since that time, I had worked to create inclusive campus environments where Black students and other students of color could be free to learn without the burden of racism and discrimination. After over 18 years of fighting for Black students at predominantly white universities to be allowed to just BE, my mental and physical health and well-being deteriorated. In this fight on campuses across the United States, departments that do this work are often underfunded and staffed with one, or at most two, professionals who are charged with all things social justice on campus. We also must be there to support Black students and students of color because we are often the only professionals on campus students see visibly advocating on their behalf. It is NOT easy work. It is exhausting. It is frustrating. It is emotional. It is disheartening. It is all those things even when it is your passion.
It is fighting in meetings when your white colleagues make out of pocket remarks. It is always speaking up in meetings even when your allies are present and know what their white colleague just said was out of pocket. It is always having to speak up and having people across campus think you are a troublemaker or an angry Black woman because you refuse to sit quietly. It is having your colleagues tell new employees not to work with you because you are difficult. It is having to facilitate dialogues around police brutality and remain neutral and fight back tears. It is having your colleagues send an email asking that we be sensitive about the feelings of the white woman on our committee because her son and husband are police officers. It is having those same colleagues never ask you and your Black colleague, who are expected to facilitate those dialogues, if you are okay. It is your institution saying Black Lives Matter but having already taken a stand on whose lives really matter by whose feelings they chose to consider.
These are only a few of the reasons why I left higher education. These examples are only equivalent to one year of my time in higher education. Multiply it by 17 more years. For my friends in higher education doing this work, I see you. I know how hard the work is and I appreciate you. As your institutions are preparing to have virtual workshops, dialogues, and seminars about the protests please take care of yourselves. Do what is necessary to guard your heart, mind, and spirit.”
This post was born from the deep emotions I experienced that day as I reflected on the impact of racism and social injustice and the work to dismantle systems of oppression on the mental health and well-being of Black people. It was also born from the deep emotions I experienced as I reflected on the added impact of sexism on the mental health of Black women. While the world was protesting institutional and systemic racism, I reflected on my 18-year protest against racism and sexism in higher education. I reflected on the deep despondency I began to feel and the eventual deterioration of my mental health.
I recently re-read Audre Lorde’s essay from the same titled book, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Lorde delivered these remarks as part of a panel discussion at a conference in 1979. The following excerpt especially resonated with me:
“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of colour to educate white women—in the face of tremendous resistance—as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
What Audre shared as part of that panel discussion in 1979, unfortunately, is still true in 2020. Black women are still expected to educate, justify, and save, all at the expense of our physical, mental, and emotional health. My decision to leave higher education in 2016 is one I have never regretted. I encourage all women, but especially Black women, to make their mental health and well-being a priority. For me, leaving higher education was the first step to reclaiming my spirit. What will be your first step?