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The Black Woman’s Burden: Battling Inertia in Higher Ed


News of bell hooks’s death came as a shock to many. The feminist, author, activist, and professor died Dec. 15, 2021, at age 69. But those who knew hooks personally were aware her health had been waning after years of fighting white supremacy and patriarchy.

Dr. M. Shadee MalaklouDr. M. Shadee Malaklou“hooks said a few years ago, ‘I felt like a balloon that had been popped and deflated,’ because of the way she was so committed to writing and teaching, to her own detriment,” said Dr. M. Shadee Malaklou, director and founder of the bell hooks center. Malaklou, also chair and associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Berea College in Kentucky, got to know hooks when she came to Berea in 2019.

“The beauty of bell’s work was that it was so accessible, it was not contained in the academy,” said Malaklou. “She didn’t see herself as a pedagogue on high, she was in conversation with pop culture and events.

“There’s something palpably radical about the ways she calls on us to act in love,” she continued. “But institutions can’t love us back.”

Malaklou hosts events like "Evening with an Activist" at the bell hooks center, where students can learn tangible ways to make a difference outside of academia. She said this lesson is deliberate and acknowledges academia and graduate school can be “violent, especially for scholars of color, women, and queer folks of color.”

Even as experts agree that the academic environment has improved over the last forty years, Black women are still shouldering disproportionate burdens compared to their white colleagues, which can negatively impact the quality and potentially the longevity of these women’s lives. By building support groups, Black women have been able to encourage each other to take more time for self-care and mental health. Many are helping each other navigate their sense of duty to their students of color, to their community, to their families, and to themselves.

Dr. Bridget Turner Kelly, an associate professor of student affairs and diversity officer in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, and her longtime mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Fries-Britt, professor of higher education at Maryland, wrote about the burdens of Black women in academia in their 2022 book "Building Mentorship Networks to Support Black Women: A Guide to Succeeding in the Academy." Contributing authors shared stories of resiliency and fortitude built by leaning on each other in toxic environments.

The book was pulled together in 2020, when the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were fresh on their minds. As Turner Kelly recalls, that year many Black faculty members were called upon to make statements and became de facto representatives of their institution’s commitment to diversity by virtue of their identity.

Dr. Felecia Commodore is an associate professor in the department of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University. She explains that, while the experience of Black women in academia varies from person to person, many find themselves exhausted by the obligation they feel to push against the system over and over, many times without support or relief from white faculty.

“At many institutions, particularly predominately white institutions [or PWIs], Black women can often be the only Black women faculty in their department,” said Commodore. “And it can be that way for an extended period of time. What happens is, you become hyper-visible. So, let’s say there’s an event or meeting on campus that’s considered optional. My non-Black colleagues — my white colleagues — cannot go, and it’s not a thing. But if I don’t go, it’s noticeable.”

Commodore said being hyper-visible also means that Black faculty members find themselves mentoring students of color outside of their department because there are no other faculty of color with whom students can identify and seek mentorship. She said many Black faculty are concerned that, if they chose to opt out of advising that student, or chose not to attend meetings, there will be no one to advocate for the needs of students of color on campus.

“There’s this unfair labor that is thrust upon us because, when we really think about it, the organization, the institution, refuses to invest in diversity and equity,” said Commodore. “And then we have to choose between, ‘do I prioritize myself, or do I assure that these students of color don’t get harmed?’”

Like many Black women academics, Commodore said she finds comfort in Black support communities. Some are online, which opens up opportunity for connection beyond PWI borders.

“The academy can be an isolating space because of the nature of the work,” said Commodore. “When you are in a space that was not created for you, and for you to be successful with the identity you hold, you have to do something to counterbalance that, when you run into those feelings or sentiments.”

Dr. Bridget Turner KellyDr. Bridget Turner KellyTurner Kelly is a second-generation college student, which she said helped her understand she would need additional layers of support as she pursued her career in academia. Fries-Britt, her mentor, was at first reluctant to step into the role as she was just beginning her transition from administration to faculty. Through a deeply intentional effort, the two women helped each other blossom into their careers. Eventually, they documented their experiences in a 2005 article, "Retaining Each Other: Narratives of Two African American Women in the Academy." Nearly 20 years later, they continue to share their experiences and vocalize resistance to a world that can seek to devalue their work.

“Racism and genderism are everywhere — there’s not a place I could work, even by myself, where I wouldn’t have to deal with these systems,” said Turner Kelly. “This is the system I know the best, that I feel like I can shape. I didn’t leave, because I wanted to be that person for others.”

Fries-Britt said that, when she first became a faculty member, she was struck by the culture of bullying that existed in academia. Bullying takes multiple forms, like manipulating students away from the leadership of faculty of color, shouting matches, and other attempts to coerce cooperation within a hegemonic hierarchy.

Fries-Britt’s father was a military man who encouraged his children to stand up and fight back when they encounter abuse or mistreatment. That encouragement, she said, helped her to stand against bullying for herself as well as others.

“Black women, we hit the glass ceiling quickly,” said Fries-Britt. “I have enough confidence to say, ‘this isn’t fair.’ I won’t watch someone else get bullied either. My most intense battles, I’ve spoken up for others who didn’t feel empowered.”

Turner Kelly noted that, although she was often the first Black woman in her program, she has not been the last. Success in building a critical mass of faculty of color within her department has come through intentional efforts from faculty of color and white faculty to increase equity.

Turner Kelly and Fries-Britt agree that there is joy in the progress they have witnessed, but they know it can all slip away too easily.

“I’ve seen a lot of shifts and changes,” said Fries-Britt. “I know how quickly that can shift back, and I don’t think you can take it for granted. We have to work to maintain that.”

Turner Kelly agrees.

“The system is always trying to protect itself,” said Turner Kelly. “It will always see people as products, as cogs in the wheel — which is exhausting — which is why some people succumb to stress, mental illbeing, and physical ailments. It takes all of us — the co-conspirators, the social justice warriors, the culturally competent people — being in lockstep, which is very hard. We all have to keep pushing, and that’s the only way it moves. Once someone sits down and takes a rest, the system keeps going.”  

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