Amid constant news feeds that confirm unprecedented rates of death, high unemployment and grim projections moving into summer, some higher education institutions that have not yet been drastically impacted by the global pandemic are operating, even from home, as business as usual. However, my experiences as a pregnant black mother scholar professor employed at a public state university during a pandemic are far from business as usual. In fact, I presently carry a complex and challenging workload by virtue of my race and gender.
Abiding by the shelter-in-place order encouraged by my state, my family and I have been at home for approximately two months. My partner and I are first-generation immigrants. We both immigrated to this country during our childhoods. I from Nigeria, and he is from China. I share these identity markers because they shape our positionalities and interactions with the world, even more so now during this time of crisis.
I am a black woman academic and seven months pregnant with my second child. My first child, precocious and overactive, is 2 years old. I am scheduled to deliver my second child in July at a major hospital in a metropolitan city that has had numerous cases of COVID-19.
At present, my circumstances are similar to many Americans across the country: two adults working two full-time jobs, alternating childcare responsibilities in order to satisfy the virtual demands of our employers. Similar to many middle-class working parents in America, we are not OK. Although my spouse is incredibly supportive, inevitably, I -- a woman, a mother -- carry a heavier load due to the normalized unequal distribution of domestic labor between the sexes. I ultimately engage in more housework and childcare while attempting to synchronously teach Ph.D. and Ed.D. students and maintain my research productivity during my seventh month of pregnancy. Needless to say, my mental, emotional and physical well-being are being tested on a daily basis as a result of our national crisis.
As a black mother scholar of black-Chinese children, it is alarming to hear the president of the United States refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese disease” during a pandemic. It is appalling that he and many others are perplexed by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the black community and fail to acknowledge the vast inequalities in our society that marginalize people of color. And it is downright disturbing to see that, in the midst of a pandemic, a black woman is attacked and berated on a national platform for simply asking a question. I am referencing to the president’s verbal assault on Yamiche Alcindor, a black woman reporter, when he told her to not be “threatening” and to be “nice” after performing the duties of her occupation.
These and other cumulative incidents, though ridiculous, have very real implicit and explicit consequences and shape the complex experiences of women, people of color and particularly women of color in higher education. Such raced and gendered incidents normalize racism, sexism and discrimination; propagate damaging stereotypes; and, above all, perpetuate inequitable experiences, opportunities and treatment for women and people of color in society at large.
For instance, gender inequality remains far-reaching in the U.S. Women often perform the same -- and, in some cases, more -- work for less pay and recognition. Many women must balance work and home. After completing full-time jobs, they engage in the second shift.
Black women, in particular, experience double jeopardy because of their race and gender and are impacted by the superwoman schema, an unrealistic cultural trope of the strong black woman that deems black women as superhuman, able to do it all and more. While black women are strong, much like other women, now more than ever they need safeguards and protective mechanism to ensure their social, emotional and psychological well-being. As I reflect on my own experiences, these major themes are intimately tied to my personhood. I am physically judged and objectified by society because of my race and my gender yet expected to perform and meet high expectations even during a pandemic.
As my colleague Maxine McKinney de Royston from the University of Wisconsin at Madison reminds us, “It’s the height of privilege to have food, housing and other forms of security right now, but the emotional and physical exhaustion of being a full-time parent, educator, scholar and much more are also real. This has been a rough ride since early March.” Indeed, those of us who teach in higher education are privileged, as some of us have tenure. But what of those mother scholars of color who have not yet achieved tenure? What implications will this ongoing pandemic have on their long-term productivity and ability to secure tenure? This pandemic will engender varying levels of productivity, depending on one’s circumstances. Acknowledging this fact, is not a sign of weakness -- it’s reality.
Presently, higher education researchers across the country have begun studies examining the experiences of nontenured faculty and the effects of COVID-19 on their career trajectories. In addition, many universities have extended junior faculty's tenure and promotion clocks (or provided a deferral option) for a year. But race and gender are often overlooked, and are these actions enough considering university’s high-stakes research, teaching and service expectations?
Honestly, balancing work and home responsibilities is a relentless task. To genuinely support vulnerable faculty members, particularly women faculty of color with children and/or dependents, a paradigm shift must occur that affirms equity in higher education. Higher education must acknowledge those faculty members who are significantly disadvantaged during a pandemic: mothers, people of color, women, professor parents and caregivers. Disregarding the effects of intersectionality on the tenure and promotion process during a pandemic is both reckless and irresponsible.
Beyond lip service, higher education must craft and enact language and policies that affirm the long-term effects of this pandemic on faculty career trajectories, with consideration of race and gender, as these groups are historically marginalized. I am proud to be affiliated with the University of Massachusetts at Boston College of Education, which is doing just that. Specifically, it is drafting COVID-19 impact statements for faculty and staff members as a shared governance document with our college. Yet unfortunately, such an approach is not nearly widespread enough, and it’s time for many more institutions to follow suit.