By now you have probably seen posts on social media written by your black colleagues indicating they are tired. Just to be clear, that weariness is long-standing, and it is no secret to other black people. It has simply now morphed into exhaustion that is so overwhelming that we are now voicing it out loud to you.
For months, we have seen countless reports of how the COVID-19 global pandemic has led to disproportionate numbers of black people becoming ill or dying every day. Just know that those numbers are rooted in the second version of America’s original sin: slavery (the first version being the almost complete annihilation of, and the stealing of land from, the indigenous American Indian population). The diseases that increase the likelihood of illness and death for blacks, if one contracts COVID-19, have their origins in the diets forced upon those who were enslaved and maintained today by the lack of access blacks have to healthy foods and poor access they have to health care. You may see those numbers and feel despair. But your black colleagues see those numbers and, in addition to feeling despair, may also be picturing the possible devastation of lives: their friends, relatives, neighbors or even their own.
As if the assault of COVID-19 on black bodies as a covert method of white supremacy and terrorism were not enough, we are increasingly and regularly witnessing the overt assault of white supremacy and terrorism on black bodies. We have had to hear about and witness the murder of black men and women by those charged with serving and protecting them and others, who are self-appointed yet awarded the privilege to act as arbiters of justice against black people. We have been inundated with videos where black people have had their right to simply inhabit a space be questioned and restricted because white supremacy has rendered that power a birthright.
We have watched white people be allowed to exist in spaces, while armed with weapons and willfully rebelling against a governor’s mandate, receive no legal consequences and even be praised by the president of the United States. Whereas we witnessed peaceful, unarmed and law-abiding black protesters and their allies, who were expressing their First Amendment right to free speech, be forcibly moved and teargassed by military police so that the president could stand in front of a church and wave a Bible. We have had to witness protests about the systemic racism embedded in our country, and often enacted by law enforcement, be hijacked by individuals invested in furthering their own agenda of creating a narrative that black people are criminals. Finally, during the time that it took for me to begin and finish this piece, black communities around this country have been ravaged by civil unrest.
This context is important, because as academics, we experienced a dramatic shift in our work lives that many other people shared. Most of us had to make a fast pivot and teach our classes remotely. Simultaneously, many of us were also sheltering in place and attending meetings via Zoom with increasing regularity. As a result, we have been inundated with articles about the impact of those changes and how we should give ourselves permission to decrease our productivity. Articles have appeared about the different pressures some female academics feel, often due to parenting or caretaking responsibilities, compared to those their male counterparts experience. A few articles went even further to note how the impact on women of color could be further exacerbated due to the tug of service and ongoing and, in some cases, increased need to mentor students of color.
What has not been acknowledged is the world of terror enveloping many black academics that has changed feeling tired to absolute exhaustion. What is terror? Terror is “a state of intense or overwhelming fear”; it is living with “violence or the threat of violence.” And I purposely use the word "terror" because that is what you feel when you are afraid to leave your home because you don’t know if you, or your loved ones, or even a stranger who looks like you, will return home with a virus that might be a death sentence, or if you will be murdered before you can return home. It is important that academia understand this, because it is our reality. It is not an excuse should productivity lag, or should we fail to laugh or smile on cue, but our reality.
As a black woman who is a tenured associate professor at a major public university, I fully understand this feeling. I am tired of black people being told that their protests are unpatriotic or are baseless. I am tired of black people not being allowed to kneel, inhabit spaces or engage in activities that are supposed to be available to all -- such as going to the gym, birdwatching in the park, doing their job, knocking on a door to ask for directions, entering their own home, stopping at a gas station, meeting colleagues at Starbucks and sleeping in their own bed. I am tired of black people dying every day because of the racism that is ingrained in the fabric of this country that leads to the inequality and oppression experienced in too many areas to even mention. I am tired of the right given to other people to murder us without consequence.
The problem is that my exhaustion is like that of many of my black colleagues, and we are still expected to meet extraordinary expectations. Extraordinary because, unless you are at a historically black college or university, you are one of a few or perhaps even the one and only, which means you carry the burden of representing all black people -- especially when someone black does something wrong. Extraordinary because it is well-known, even if not always acknowledged, that to be black and successful you must be, at the bare minimum, twice as good as your nonblack colleagues. Extraordinary because the pandemic has created additional stressors and new responsibilities, and for black faculty members, these are being added to the extra responsibilities that we already have. Extraordinary because we as black academics are living in a growing state of terror that only we can truly understand.
We are at a pivotal time in our country. We have an upcoming election that can provide us with an opportunity to change the leadership of our country. That change is necessary but will certainly not result in the vast changes that are needed. Thus, do not become complacent because you think you feel tired from the impact of structural racism. You are not tired. Your black colleagues are tired. They are tired, weary, exhausted and do not have the luxury of resting. They live with the smog of racism so eloquently described almost 25 years ago by Beverly Tatum.
Just remember, eliminating racism and white supremacy is not a cause. It is a necessity, because only when that goal is accomplished will your black colleagues be able to rest, breathe and live terror-free.