A Survival Guide for Black, Indigenous, and Other Women of Color in Academe

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By Aisha S. Ahmad

This week, I was awarded tenure at my university. Brown. Muslim. Woman. Tenured.

As I enter this new stage of my career, I can think only of you: the BIPOC woman starting her journey in higher education. The next generation.

There are many things I wish I had known when I was new to academic life. I wish to disclose these secrets to you, to help protect your gifted mind from the injuries and injustices that keep Black, Indigenous, and other women of color out of academe.

I am here as a sister — perhaps now as an auntie — so that you know you are not alone. I will share a few granules of wisdom about racism in higher education. May they help you survive and thrive in a system that is structurally designed to cast a shadow on your bright and luminous mind. So let us tackle a few obvious demons that stand in your way.

The Great Gaslighting. Let’s begin with the effects of institutionalized racism on your wellness and success. One of the great absurdities is that colleges admit that systemic racism is real and wrong, yet also fail to acknowledge it in any specific case. You will hear many denouncements of racism as an abstraction, a great mythical beast. A diversity statement will be posted on the campus website.

But those award nominations that somehow overlooked the most outstanding Black scholars in the field? The hiring committee that once again failed to shortlist any BIPOC candidates? That lab that has never recruited or promoted any women of color? In practice, colleges and universities are cesspools of denial. Racism exists — but not here, not us, not me.

You already know this. What you may not yet realize: Prolonged, daily exposure to that kind of environment can disturb your beautiful mind and, thus, affect your marvelous theorems and discoveries. In essence, this racist denial is a form of relentless, institutionalized gaslighting.

Here is an everyday example. You will be the only BIPOC woman in the room. Someone will behave in a hostile or inappropriate way, spitting his racism right in your face. And yet, despite some awkward or confused expressions, you will realize that no one in the room is going to help. At this critical moment, you can either stay silent or speak up. Both choices have consequences. If you are silent, you will carry the hurt in your soul. If you call it out, you will face a tsunami of hysterical defensiveness. No one can tell you which choice is best for you, and each situation will be different.

If you choose to speak up, brace yourself. The gaslighting racist will retaliate, with the primary goal of making you question your own sanity. He will now attempt to make you feel stupid or rude for pointing out his shameful behavior. You must not allow him to derail you with denial and lies. His tactics are designed to control you and make you small and quiet.

Walk away and immediately call any of your aunties — inside or outside of academe. We know this pathetic trick all too well. In these situations, an auntie who never went to college is often safer to call than that card-carrying ally in your department. She will understand the phenomenon in her bones. She will help you document it and devise a safe strategy. She will confirm that you are not crazy or stupid, and will tell you stories of all the same foolishness she has endured.

If all of your aunties are busy or away, call a sister until we can get back to you. The most critical factor is that the poisonous words of a racist gaslighter not be allowed to seep into the soft parts of your soul. You may be alone in that room, but you are not alone in this world. We are not too far away. Reach for us quickly and often, as a shield for your precious self-esteem.

Surviving a viper. In academe, “publish or perish” is our axiom. For a BIPOC woman, racist discrimination can have a serious effect on your publication record. The real challenges happen well before the submission stage of an article or book. In fact, you are most vulnerable in the early stages of your research.

It is no secret that everyone’s first attempt at a new research project is garbled, incoherent garbage. It is through constructive academic criticism that we all transform our initial rubbish into quality research. Yet it is in this early period that a racist viper — self-aware or not — can exploit this vulnerability and shatter the confidence of an emerging BIPOC woman scholar.

Using the veneer of academic criticism, this professor may derisively mock or dismiss your early work. She may say you are not smart enough. That you do not belong. That you have no scholarly promise. She provides no path toward growth, just a knife in your belly. If this person is your supervisor, you may be doubly devastated. In our seemingly meritocratic institutions, such intellectual condemnation can make you feel worthless.

Encountering a racist viper can be a career killer for a young scholar. The viper may say nothing about the color of your skin, but you will see her warmly encourage other students who are just as novice as you, whose work is no more polished than yours. You alone will receive cold rejection, unrelated to your daily preparation and performance. You will have no evidence of discrimination, save for the grim glare in her eyes and the change in her tone that signals you are a nuisance and should go away. She will be careful to leave no hard evidence, and therefore no formal recourse against her.

At this vulnerable early stage, you are very likely to internalize unwarranted hostility and believe her lies: Am I the worst one in class? Are my ideas stupid? Maybe I don’t belong here.

Let me be clear. This is not a normal or appropriate way for any professional educator to provide learning feedback in any context. This is pure poison. If you are receiving such toxic signals from one or more professors, it is evidence that you are dealing with people who are either overtly hateful, or who have such severe internalized biases that they are blindly abusing their own students.

Your first line of defense is to identify and understand that you are dealing with a racist viper. Talk to your aunties and other women of color whom you trust. Every single one of us has been told these same lies. Vipers are old news. We will help keep your eyes on your big vision, not on this petty tyrant. We will remind you of the research that inspired you down this path. That perspective will help shrink the viper down to size. She is not a powerful giant who can crush you; she is a small, miserable person who has failed in her professional duties as an educator.

As you journey into higher education, you will need spiritual resilience in many situations:

  • You just presented a paper at a prestigious conference, and then “Chad” hands you his dirty glass at the hotel restaurant. Shame.
  • You propose a contrary theoretical perspective on your panel, and “Karen” bitterly accuses you of being aggressive. Fear.
  • That distinguished guest lecturer asks everyone in your circle about their research, but ignores you like you’re invisible. Sadness.
  • Your classmates form a reading group, but you are not invited. Loneliness.

These moments will happen and they will pass. Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t have a witty comeback. There is no such thing as a perfect retort. Don’t be embarrassed that your face flushed and you stuttered. The shame is on the viper, not on you. It’s OK if you snapped and lost your temper. You have my official auntie permission to get angry and hurt sometimes, just like any human being.

Take a deep breath. Draw out all the goodness and encouragement you have received over the years from your aunties, teachers, friends, and family — those who have seen your true worth. Now go back to that classroom or forum with the spiritual army of your loved ones behind you. This is your warrior mode. No evil can touch you.

This strength and resilience will help you withstand the toxic effects of racism on your self-esteem. We need you healthy and motivated for the long term. Your discoveries are too important to be sidelined by bitter, small-minded people. Help a younger BIPOC woman who is even newer on this path. With practice and community, you will be strong and ready to shine.

Forgiveness and freedom. I close with a request for forgiveness. While I have counseled you to call upon women of color who have paved the way, I must also warn you about our limitations. Please remember that we are tired, and there are very few of us in academe. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and cannot help. We will have shortcomings that disappoint you.

Our strength may also have been eroded. For our survival, we have been forced to be quiet and small at times. We may sometimes advise you to shrink as well, thinking that we are keeping you safe. Please forgive us if we get scared in your moment of courage.

The truth is, we are not as free as you will be. The world you are creating will be more equitable than the one we created for you. You — the next generation — must scale the walls of justice that we could not surmount. You must surpass us. One day, you will help others surpass you.

As you embark on this journey, fear no evil. Your light is greater than this darkness, and your love of knowledge will help change the world. We are so excited to see what you will do with your gifted mind. Remember that you are not alone. We are with you and are so proud of you.

Aisha S. Ahmad is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and chair of Canada’s Board of Women in International Security.

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