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You Got Me F****d Up: Black Women in Academia

I've worked in academia long enough (32 years) to know Black women navigate a labyrinth of systemic challenges and nuanced barriers. Despite our valuable contributions and resilience, we confront a pockmarked landscape of historical biases, institutionalized racism, and gendered expectations.


And Ugly Combination


Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey, death by suicide after several run-ins with university bureaucracy.

The suffering of Black women in academia can’t be fully understood without examining the intersectionality of race and gender. Black women exist at the nexus of both racial and gender biases—a unique convergence of prejudice. Our dual identity hinders career advancement by leading to isolation, a lack of mentorship and constrained networking. Our intellectual abilities are forever questioned and all the typical racial and gender tropes double up.

We've all heard of “glass ceilings,” but Black women often hit the “glass cliff.” We get promoted at times of crises or organizational upheaval, when the chances of failure are exponentially higher. Then, we take the fall for the inevitable collapse. If our Herculean efforts do manage to succeed, we get no credit for the turnaround. We become disgusted and quit, or we get physically ill and surrender. Sometimes we even die amid the ever-present bushwhack of workplace sleights—the microaggressions, stereotyping, credit stealing, non-acknowledgement, gatekeeping, and outright hostility.

Academia is killing Black women.


Ambition is always—always—fraught with challenge. Tenure and promotion for us comes with higher standards and more intense scrutiny than our peers. Our research and teaching gets the most rigorous evaluation, even as we labor to balance the need to conform to predominantly white, male academic norms while preserving our identity and voice. The near absence of representation in decision-making committees exacerbates inequities in the tenure and promotion process.

Harvard's first Black president Claudine Gay stepped down after anti-diversity non-profit The National Association of Scholars (NAS) launched an investigative campaign against her. Photo source: Newsweek


Adding to the stress is the fact that Black women in academia often bear a disproportionate "service burden," with expectations to serve on committees, mentor minority students, and lead diversity initiatives. This kind of work is crucial for institutional equity, but it overwhelms the research and scholarship work so fundamental to a Black woman's career advancement. The additional labor is undervalued and unrecognized, of course, and it puts Black women in the unlikely position of being highly visible while also marginalized.


All these factors collude to create a harmful work environment, yet we’re blamed for our problems and asked to change ourselves to fit a system designed from the beginning to exclude us. Just go “do some self-care” they blithely tell us, but a bubble bath won’t soak away the legion of biases inherent in higher education.


Deadly System of Contempt

Temple University President JoAnne A. Epps collapsed at work and later died. Source: Temple News

A friend of mine, another Black woman academic, spent a week bumping around from one office to another at her institution over her medical leave. When, at the end of the week, she was finally on the phone with the head of HR, that person, too, began the conversation in condescension. After so much dismissive attitude and contempt, my friend shouted, “Listen. You got me f****d up, if you think ...”

"Mr. HR" eventually began to listen and do his job, but why did it require that level of anger before he would do the bare minimum? The answer is simple: academia, as with so many other institutions in this country, doesn’t give a damn about the ideas, work, or lives of Black women.

Last year, JoAnne A. Epps, Acting President of Temple University collapsed at a memorial service for a colleague in September. She later died at a hospital. The university went on with the service after she was removed. A quote from her longtime friend and colleague Bobbi Liebenberg claims, “She never said, ‘No’.” She “always put everyone and everything ahead of herself. Always.”

Dr. Orintha Montague, President, Volunteer State Community College, also died last September. She was 57. Dr. Margaret Smith, Assistant Professor, Pennsylvania Western University (formerly Edinboro University) died last year after a brief illness. She was a colleague of mine and none of us even knew she was sick.


Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey, Vice President of Student Affairs at the Lincoln University of Missouri died by suicide last month, after reporting long term harassment by the university president. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned from her position last month after a series of political interactions that had nothing to do with her actual job. She's still alive, at least, in large part because she understood the peril academia for Black women: The baseless harassment would not stop until she was dead.

Higher Institutions striving for true excellence and innovation must recognize that their goals cannot be fully realized without the inclusion and advancement of Black women. But systemic change is imperative. This includes re-evaluating tenure and promotion criteria, providing targeted mentorship programs, and fostering an inclusive culture that recognizes diverse perspectives and experiences. Addressing the battalion of tailor-made challenges facing Black women in academia and fostering an environment of support and equity is the only way academia can move toward a more inclusive and dynamic future.

Right now, however, Black women are the only ones who can save us. First we must acknowledge that the system, as currently structured, is designed to mete out maximum stress, to isolate us, to gate-keep information and resources, and to minimize our accomplishments in an effort to make us feel unwelcome. From there, beleaguered Black women must create a supportive environment with active community building.


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