“Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do.” Assata Shakur
We go to school. We play by the rules. We finally find a job in the academy (or other industries). Then we encounter the challenge. Some of us, women of color, find ourselves working in rather difficult environments. A difficult environment is one that a) does not recognize our humanity, b) remains silent regarding race-gender oppression and other oppressive structures; c) does not actively engage in efforts to ensure our substantive involvement into the power structures; d) actively/passively works to marginalize us; e) consciously/unconsciously engages in activity to derail our success; d) and/or all of the above.
Some of us find ourselves, because academia can be very isolating, trying to navigate these spaces with very limited tools and strategies. Below I explore some coping strategies that have served me well. They help to ground me in who I am as a Black woman in a society that is not always concerned with my existence.
Know yourself. I can’t stress the value of this enough. When you don’t know yourself, you will twist in the wind trying to please others. You will be forever reinventing yourself to fit other people’s expectations of you. Audre Lorde said it best: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” This is where our resistance to the narrative of belongingness begins—defining ourselves for our selves. To do anything less is to concede power. So spend sometime getting to know yourselves: your strengths, your weaknesses, your triggers, your boundaries…. Write them down, visualize them. Do whatever you can so that you can be reminded of who you are the next time that colleague behaves in a way that is harmful to your psyche.
Build your web. Be like a spider and build your web of support. This is the web that you build outside of your institution. Find your tribe and find your safe spaces outside of academia. This will help you to manage the feelings of isolation so many of us encounter as a result of being the only one in our departments, on our floor… Find a tribe that reminds you of your humanity. So how do you find this tribe given that it is such a challenge for women of color, and others, to build community? Sometimes we have to take risk and move outside of our comfort zones. If you are like me, academia is my comfort zone. I’ve excelled at it, well at least some times, is the place that I’m most familiar with. I’m also a rather quiet individual (maybe hard for some who know me to imagine, but I am). So I’ve had to work really hard at this. Part of my strategy was to take my individual interests and weave a web. Weaving this web involved me inviting individual that I didn’t know out to tea/coffee—the commitment for these are low. I reached out to a variety of women—graduate students, colleagues, community members, church members. You get the picture. What I learned is that it takes a while to build this web and as such, I needed to be patient and persistent. I also couldn’t take everything personal. So for example, I met a woman who I thought we hit it off really well. However, her rather busy schedule seems to be a challenge to work around. It felt like I was the only one reaching out abut getting together. And when we did get together we had such wonderful meaningful conversations. But it still felt that I was the only one trying to build a relationship. So eventually, I let the little thread holding this relationship together go. I had to ask myself how much energy and effort do I want to expand, but I had to take my ego out of my response. Additionally, everyone you meet will not enter into your inner room of friendships. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t include them in your web. In other words, be conscious and not dismissive, of those you meet.
Mentors and allies. In my estimation these are two different sets of people; although they might be some overlap. But you need both. How do you build allies at your institution? The same way you build your tribe outside of the academy. Invite others to coffee/tea. And these should be individuals at various levels, from peers, to administrators, to support staff, and students (although I err on the side of being very protective of students so I’m cautious of this one). Invest a little time meeting others. Each semester you should have a minimum of three new people that you connect with. Keep it to a minimum to make sure that it’s manageable. But don’t forget to stay in contact with those whom you met previously. How do you manage all of this? Create template emails that you use to introduce yourself and for follow up. Just like you consciously organize your schedule around meetings, teaching, and writing, you should be conscious about reaching out to others. Regarding mentors, you can take a similar approach but also reach out to individuals outside of your institution. You need at least three individuals with whom to develop mentoring relationships. Some one who is ahead of you to show you where you are going, someone at the same level of you and some one at a level “below” you to remind you from whence you came. Mentoring is about building a mutually giving relationship that can only be defined by the folk in that relationship. So do your work and clearly define what it is you want from a mentor and what you have to give to that mentor. Yes, mentoring is reciprocal (even if it’s not equal). Don’t just call your mentor when you want something.
Minimize psychological damage. Again, this involves conscious action. Sometimes the damage done to us can be rather visible (for example Dr. Ersula Ore) and sometimes it is less visible (like the student who once challenged my syllabus informing me that everything about my syllabus was wrong, from the title to the assignments). Regardless of whether the assaults are visible or less visible, they cause damage. The challenge is that the damage is cumulative. So we have to be mindful about how we address the damage we experience. Again, you have to be willing to explore a spectrum of responses. For me, I use breaks—I literally take mini breaks from the academy. I also seek external help by seeing a therapist (although it is sometimes difficult to find someone who understands how intersectionality functions in academia). The one approach that works for me is speaking out. I speak about my experiences regardless. “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it” Zora Neal Hurston. There is a place for silence as an integral element in our strategy for survival. But it can’t be the only tool in our arsenal. When we choose not to speak on our behalf they will tell our stories, if they choose to tell them at all, for us in a way that might not be true to who we are. So speak!
Reject the deficit model. You are not in need of fixing. The way you speak, the way you dress, they way you simply be. You have all you need to be in these spaces (that doesn’t mean that we don’t spend time honing our skills). But you are not in need of fixing because you are not broken. Yes, conversations will occur when you will recognize your marginality. For example, I once sat through a dinner where colleagues spoke of tracing their ancestry. Because of slavery, I can’t trace my ancestry very far back. My colleagues never noticed my silence throughout the entire conversation. It was one of those moments where I was reminded of my marginalization. However, I choose not to internalize this. I’m here now, regardless of my past and because of my past. So how do we reject the deficit model? I use what I call a freedom box. This is a box where I collect items that remind me of my value, that calm me down when someone tries to dismiss me as though I have no right to speak up in a meeting. This box is filled with my treasures. So define your treasures and begin to build your freedom box. By the way you could build it electronically. I like to be able to touch, so mine is physical as opposed to virtual. Finally, spend some time defining success in your own terms!
Work on an exit strategy. This is a strategy that allows you to leave on your own terms. You determine what you need to do to stay and leave. But you have to define it. You can’t have others define your exit strategy. Create a plan. Be specific of the doing element of the plan. Each day you should find time to dedicate to the doing of your exit plan. Your exit plan could be physical and/or psychological.
Remember that “you are the designer of your destiny; you are the author of your story.” Lisa Nichols.