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Inside Higher Ed

Last fall, Black women educators across the nation gathered online and in chat rooms to express their devastation over the loss of two university leaders, both of them Black women. Temple University president JoAnne Epps, described as a “mentor to many,” passed away at Temple Hospital after suffering what doctors called a “sudden episode” on Sept. 19. Three days later, it was announced that Orinthia T. Montague, president of Volunteer State Community College, characterized as a leader who “embodied hard work,” had also died.

As awareness of the deaths, oustings, resignations and demotions of Black women administrators has increased over the past months, so have narratives of personal and racial battle fatigue. Stories of uphill struggles to have our work and credentials recognized and valued have been prolific and glaring. Small wonder that, as the National Center for Education Statistics has reported, Black women make up only about 4 percent of full-time faculty in the academy.

The fact remains that, for as long as can be remembered, we have too often experienced greater scrutiny than our non-Black colleagues and borne the burden of inequitable expectations due to the perpetual systemic racism in the academic workplace—all without commensurate resources, support and compensation. And on top of that has been the significant invisible labor and uncompensated withdrawals of “emotional currency” that we’ve provided to support each other and our students.

Having to navigate all the implicit and explicit pressures of academia can contribute to emotional fatigue, ultimately culminating in burnout. Black women educators have also shared feelings of isolation and a desire for more mental health resources—especially during that week in September and again in January 2024, with news of the death of Antoinette (Bonnie) Candia-Bailey, Lincoln University’s vice president of student affairs. While the representation of Black women across the higher education landscape is low, the growth of mental health issues among them is high. Given this data, Black women are faced with the choice of either searching for ways to persevere, though not necessarily thrive, or leaving their position and/or institution as “an act of self-preservation.”

Recent examples suggest that more Black women are starting to explore the latter option. In addition to the highly publicized departure of Claudine Gay from the presidency of Harvard University, we have the example of Lesley Lokko, the former dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College in New York, who resigned after serving 10 months in her role. While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues, in her resignation letter she cited her reasons for leaving, including the lack of support, unbearable workload and lack of respect for Black people, especially Black women.

And one only needs to do a quick search on social media under the hashtags #BlackInTheIvory, #BlackinTheAcademY or #WeAreTheCitation to see scores of folx sharing their stories of how discrimination, burnout and excessive workloads have contributed to their leaving academia. That has a particularly deleterious effect, given that Black women are already significantly underrepresented in academia.

These stories underscore the unique stress that Black women encounter in academia and its profound effects on their mental and physical health. As Black women in academia, the ongoing necessity to navigate the various “-isms” and the challenges of the workplace inevitably affect our overall well-being. Those -isms and challenges can induce chronic stress, which can heighten a person’s level of anxiety. Additionally, they may result in feelings of isolation and internalization of negative stereotypes that can contribute to depressive symptoms. Or they may manifest in alterations to sleep patterns, eating habits and the onset of psychosomatic symptoms. Such experiences can lead to different coping mechanisms that can be maladaptive and lead to substance use disorders or other unhealthy strategies, with further detrimental effects on mental health.

Many Black women rely on their strength and resilience to deal with the multitudinous forms of discrimination they can experience on a daily basis, which reinforces the “strong Black woman” narrative. However, Black women deem this narrative both a gift and a curse. The concept of the strong Black woman was developed to counter the stereotypical narrative of the mammy, jezebel and welfare queen, as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Cheryl Woods Giscombé has noted. But it often ignores the overwhelming challenges that many Black women confront, which encourage them to suppress their needs and ignores their vulnerability.

Indeed, the mental and physical health challenges among Black women also derive from having to address the impact of racial discrimination while also experiencing it. When a Black woman chooses to share her lived experience, she is allowing herself to be vulnerable within a system that may reject her truth. “Racial battle fatigue,” initially used to describe the experiences of Black men in the United States, is a term that has since broadened to describe the collective experience of people of color. The continuing effort to function in work spaces where discrimination and aggressions hold sway has had adverse physiological and psychological effects on overall Black health—including but certainly not limited to high blood pressure, disrupted sleep, stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation and grief.

Subverting Sophisticated Racism

The phenomenon of “sophisticated racism,” as explored by Victoria Showunmi and Carol Tomlin, serves to help examine the prevalent and normative process of marginalizing the voices, contributions and visibility of Black women educators within higher education. It underscores the subtlety with which today’s systemic Eurocentric forces and structures undermine the consistent enrichments that Black women educators can infuse into both the learning environment and leadership discourse. They negate such educators’ intellectual capital and how much their diverse racial and gender identities contribute to their distinct perspectives and lived experiences—and, in turn, enhance the lives of their students and colleagues.

Recognizing the formidable intellectual capital Black women educators possess as they navigate intersecting identities in academe is imperative. And understanding the entrenched forces and structures that undergird the myriad challenges they confront also helps to frame what can be done to address them so Black women can go beyond surviving to thriving. Leaders of higher education institutions as well as colleagues and peers of Black women in education must advocate for and support them. Here are a few introductory steps to take.

  • Listen and lead with empathy. A form of racism known as racelighting refers to “the process whereby people of color question their own thoughts and actions due to systemically delivered racialized messages that make them second-guess their own lived experiences and realities with racism,” in the words of J. Luke Wood. When a Black woman shares her lived experience with mental health, racial discrimination and prejudice, listen to her. Listen from a “reality pedagogy” lens, with the intent of meeting that person where she is and without trying to impose your culture and beliefs on the Black experience.
  • Recognize barriers. Highlight inequalities and roadblocks. Then follow up by being a part of the solution. Focus on advocating for changes in policy that remove those barriers. Consider how you might share ways to create equal opportunities. Recognize that the lived experiences of members of minoritized groups are significant and add valued perspectives to scholarly discussion, calling attention to when they are devalued or dismissed.
  • Promote mental health resources and self-care. When Black women shared their overwhelming commonalities after the death of Candia-Bailey, it shed light on the deep-seated impact of workplace stress in academia. Her story exposed the harmful consequences of bullying and inadequate support, underscoring the pressing need for everyone on a campus to take mental health requests and needs seriously.
  • Traverse forward together. The calls for support, mental health interventions, professional development and support give the leaders of our institutions an opportunity to assess their value system. They can, and should, consider what role a healthy employee base has on their list of criteria of what makes their institution a success.

As one of those leaders, or as colleagues and peers within the academe, what actions will you take to be intentional, action-oriented advocates for Black women? How will you begin taking steps to partner in creating policies and procedures that are inclusive and that amplify their voices? How will you be a partner in mental health advocacy for all?

Jálin B. Johnson is a JEDI strategist and principal at Insufferable Academics LLC who has also served as a senior diversity officer, professor of business and organizational leadership, and doctoral program faculty member. Nakisha Castillo is associate professor of psychology and clinical director in the School of Arts and Sciences at UMass Global. Natalie V. Nagthall is a guided pathways regional director at the Foundation for California Community Colleges and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Hawani Negussie is chair of the early childhood education program for UMass Global.

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