Last night I was on the phone with a good friend, mentor and colleague. I mentioned to her in passing how outraged I was that my landlord didn’t even ask to meet my house sitter. I said to her, “Wouldn’t you want to meet some random person who was going to be sleeping in your house?!?” Her response was, “See, this is what happens when you’re a woman of color in academia. When someone actually trusts you, you think something is wrong with them! We’re so used to being under attack.”
And we are.
After getting off the phone I thought about how ‘ready’ I always am. As a psychologist I should be more aware of a primary source of my daily exhaustion. Always being ‘on’, preparing to defend myself, my presence and my choices has resulted in Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF). The more I thought about it, the more I realized I carry all the symptoms: My shoulders are always tense to the point I have to remind myself to relax them at least three times an hour; I am always running through scripts in my head of what I am going to say if so and so says this in class or at the faculty meeting; my heart rate goes up and I start perspiring whenever a white colleague says the word ‘education’ in my presence. These behavioral, psychological and physiological responses are a consequence of the cumulative daily microaggressions I face as a young, single woman who had the nerve to situate her dark body in an historically white male dominated space.
One might think that in leaving work for the day my shoulders would relax, my mind could stop spinning and my body temperature could approach something non fever-inducing. But alas, the battle—the lifelong war in which my skin color and body parts oblige involuntary participation—is fought beyond the walls of academia.
Many of the points below will be familiar to women—especially women of color—with advanced degrees who must constantly explain to colleagues, supervisors, friends, family members, love interests and complete strangers…our existence.
I fight to defend my choice of:
- Hair style
- Marriage status
- Parental status
- Romantic partners
- Geographical location
- Lifestyle (e.g., living alone versus with roommates; traveling a lot versus staycations)
- Educational institutions
Particularly when I’m at work, I fight to defend my choice of:
- Course offerings
- Service to the college
- Institution type
- Academic discipline
- Pedagogical methods
- Technology in my office
Most of all, across contexts, I fight to defend the credibility of my words and the validity of my experiences. So yes, I may be ‘passionate’ or ‘intimidating’ or whatever other word you assign in an attempt to subjugate my difference. But at the end of the day, in the words of Miss Celie, “Dear God, I’m here.”