Black (Academic) Women’s Health – A Graduate Student’s Perspective

November 6, 2012
By

By Anonymous*

I was so excited when I started receiving acceptance letters to pursue a graduate degree in Sociology. I knew that picking a graduate school was a big decision; I decided to focus on finding an institution that would provide me with the skills and support to be successful and a place I felt excited about.

The first campus visit that I went on happened to be to the school that ranked the highest out of my acceptances. In one of many awkward conversations, my graduate student host was not hesitant to tell me about the fellowship she landed for her high GRE test scores. I naïvely interrupted, telling her that fellowships were awarded to people without the scores she suggested—I knew this because my scores were below the supposed cutoff and I was already promised a fellowship. Her response was straight to the point: “oh, well, that is because you have a diversity fellowship.”

During my second university visit, the recruits were invited to an off-campus working group. On this particular day the assignment was for everyone to bring in her or his favorite feminist song, listen to it as a group and then discuss. It wasn’t until the song, “Women are the Nigger of the World” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, began playing that I realized I was the only black person in the room. My heartbeat increased as I prepped myself to speak up and state my disdain for the song (see The Crunk Feminist Collective for a great discussion on why this song is problematic); however, when the song stopped the room was completely silent.  I, a 21-year-old recruit, did not have the guts to say a thing—but neither did the other 15 faculty and students in the room. This was the only song that had no discussion.

My final campus visit went fine. I don’t remember any specific moments where I felt alienated or judged critically because of my race (not saying it didn’t happen, but I just didn’t notice it). And in the end, I chose this school. While a variety of factors weighed into my decision—such as geographic location, financial support, and familial connections—I cannot say that the awkward, disheartening conversations that I encountered elsewhere were left out of my final decision.

Despite the non-occurrence of a racist event happening during this recruitment, I knew that I had to prepare myself. I was a budding race scholar and understood that racist experiences were just as much a part of the academy as they are in every other institution, organization, and interaction within our racialized social system (Bonilla-Silva 1997). I, as a young woman of color graduate student, would have to go through things that others without my gender and race, even in a sociology department, would not even think about.

I am now in my fifth year of graduate school and working on my dissertation. I am so thankful and blessed to be where I am but I have, as I thought I would, encountered many awkward, disheartening moments. I have been the only person of color in a seminar class and assumed the role of the ‘minority voice’. I have been excluded from nearly department-wide student happy hours. I have had the standard greeting and smile unreturned from faculty as we passed each other in the halls. These experiences are not only a result of my surroundings—I want to be clear that I enjoy my department and university—rather, these experiences are a result of who I am as a woman of color.

Since being here I picked up another research area, mental health, which has actually been extremely helpful in my quest to understand the world around me. One of the most prominent theoretical models used in the sociological study of mental health is the stress process model, which explains why and how stress has a direct, significant, and negative relationship with both physical and mental health.

According to the theory’s founder, Lenard Pearlin (1989: 240), “many stressful experiences…don’t spring out of a vacuum but typically can be traced back to surrounding social structures and people’s locations within them.” In other words, individuals are differentially exposed to stressors because of their social location (e.g., race, gender). Furthermore, social statuses that are situated in disadvantaged positions (e.g., blacks, women) have greater exposure to stress and have more health problems as a result.

Certainly, stress impacts everyone, including academics. As a graduate student we might have financial strain because of our relatively small stipends.  Additionally, feelings of inadequacy abound within departmental walls. However, I believe there is a different type of stress that can impact women of color in the academy above and beyond the more typical stressors. The term microagression captures it well: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al. 2007: 271). It is these microagressions that accumulate on top of the other stressors that graduate school typically brings that has very real health implications. Yes, most graduate students are struggling financially, but some of ‘us’ cannot fall back on our parents’ wealth. Yes, we all want to fit in, but ‘we’ often have to wonder if our exclusion is on the basis of our race and gender.

The research on the stress process model is clear: the more stress, the worse health. I, however, don’t need to rely on the research to agree—my friends and I have lived it. At some point in this process I began grinding my teeth at night and they have now shifted (it doesn’t help that we don’t have dental insurance). Hair loss, extreme weight fluctuations, skin rashes that break out under stressful situations are all very real to us.

The manifestation of stress has also been extremely detrimental to our psychological well-being. The gallon of accumulated tears doesn’t capture the anxiety, anger, or fear that we have experienced. Many of us have gone to the campus counselors and psychologists, while some of us have even used medication to protect our mental health.

Thankfully, the story does not stop there; one final dimension of the stress process model needs attention: protective factors. Factors include religion, social support, self-esteem, a sense of control, etc. and can have strong, and mostly positive, impact on health directly or through a mediation process that helps ameliorate the impact of stress on health.

I have relied on a few very important protective factors that have helped me tackle the stress related to being a woman of color in academia. I would like to share a few that have been my saving grace.

  1. Seek support from your peers – On my initial visit to my current department I met with another woman of color. She was positive, welcoming, and most importantly honest. She told me it would not be easy, but that she would support me—and that she has. Our department and networks have grown and we now have enough people we can call on in times of need. In fact, we decided to found a group, the Women of Color Social Science Collective, and have created seminars for undergrads, offered tutoring, and organized those much-needed debriefing sessions after a particularly tough experience. If you feel like you don’t fit in, make your own place!
  2. Seek support from professionals – When I thought I was pregnant, I walked straight into the doctor’s office for help. They gave me a diagnosis, shared resources, and provided the technical help I needed to carry and deliver a beautiful baby boy. When I thought I was ‘losing it’ (i.e., too distressed to be productive), I hesitantly walked into the counseling center. I found that they too are able to give diagnoses, provide resources, and are qualified to carry you through recovery. Faculty that I have sought out, in my department and across the country, have also been extremely helpful—they know the ropes and most are happy to share.
  3. Tap into your own personal resources – Yes, academia has its perks, but the many years of schooling, long hours, and the constant threat of rejection make up some of the pitfalls of the job. We are academics because we felt compelled to do so, not because it was the easy way out. We are smart, dedicated, and can make a change. On top of that, as women of color academics, we are strong, resilient, and passionate. We can do this.
  4. Remember that there is something more important – Being a part of the greater community is also important: visit parks, volunteer, go on dates. Have a (temporary) escape plan if necessary. Relatedly, and significantly, always remember that life is bigger than a season. Life is bigger than passing exams, landing a job, or those snooty and/or racist people that make us feel less than what we are. I have also found that seeking someone/thing (for me God, for you maybe something else) that is bigger than you is always a way to put things into perspective.

I have yet to finish my program, land a job, or get tenure. I am sure that these required obstacles will present a whole host of problems—times when I am excluded, degraded, judged, laughed at, and so on. I’m not sure I will have it all together but I know the research: if I continue to let the stress get to me I will not be physically or mentally prepared to tackle what is ahead. So for now, I will cling to my list to get through. Then, maybe one day, we will have enough power to make a change in academia so that others who choose to follow in our footsteps will travel a less thorny path.

Works Cited

“I Saw the Sign but Did We Really Need a Sign?: SlutWalk and Racism” The Crunk Feminist Collective. http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/i-saw-the-sign-but-did-we-really-need-a-sign-slutwalk-and-racism/

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Racialized Social System: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 62(3):465-480.

Pearlin, Leonard I. 1989. “The Sociological Study of Stress.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 30: 241-256.

Sue, Derald W., Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquiliz. 2007. “Racial Microagressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 62(4):271-286.

 

*We removed the author’s name and identifying information at her request.

 

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52 Responses to Black (Academic) Women’s Health – A Graduate Student’s Perspective

  1. Jolivette on November 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

    This piece is speaking my life. Thanks for writing this. It is helping me manage my load and heal a bit too.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Healing is such a process, but a necessary one. Thank you for reading and best of luck!

  2. Jolivette on November 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

    This piece is speaking my life. Thanks for writing this. It is helping me manage my load and heal a bit too.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Healing is such a process, but a necessary one. Thank you for reading and best of luck!

  3. Jolivette on November 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

    This piece is speaking my life. Thanks for writing this. It is helping me manage my load and heal a bit too.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Healing is such a process, but a necessary one. Thank you for reading and best of luck!

  4. Jolivette on November 6, 2012 at 9:43 am

    This piece is speaking my life. Thanks for writing this. It is helping me manage my load and heal a bit too.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Healing is such a process, but a necessary one. Thank you for reading and best of luck!

  5. Sarah on November 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

    As a woman in a different field, and with a skin color where I have more company, I can sympathize and empathize. And there are days when I ask myself what we ought to endure. But the only way we get to a world where our fields are more diverse is to build a strong network by sticking it out. You have allies in surprising places, and it can get better. Thanks for sharing – it matters a lot.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for being an ally!

  6. Sarah on November 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

    As a woman in a different field, and with a skin color where I have more company, I can sympathize and empathize. And there are days when I ask myself what we ought to endure. But the only way we get to a world where our fields are more diverse is to build a strong network by sticking it out. You have allies in surprising places, and it can get better. Thanks for sharing – it matters a lot.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for being an ally!

  7. Sarah on November 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

    As a woman in a different field, and with a skin color where I have more company, I can sympathize and empathize. And there are days when I ask myself what we ought to endure. But the only way we get to a world where our fields are more diverse is to build a strong network by sticking it out. You have allies in surprising places, and it can get better. Thanks for sharing – it matters a lot.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for being an ally!

  8. Sarah on November 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

    As a woman in a different field, and with a skin color where I have more company, I can sympathize and empathize. And there are days when I ask myself what we ought to endure. But the only way we get to a world where our fields are more diverse is to build a strong network by sticking it out. You have allies in surprising places, and it can get better. Thanks for sharing – it matters a lot.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for being an ally!

  9. Morgan MacDonald on November 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Fantastic article, Whitney!

    We all struggle through graduate school, but I think we don’t always take the time (or interest, truth be told) to see how our fellow graduate students are doing. I’m not at Vandy anymore, but I so appreciate you bravely sharing your experiences! As a a white woman who came straight from undergrad into the program, I always felt underestimated (belittled?) and ignored, but it’s true that you probably feel that even more. We have to support each other – not just as women or academics or mothers, but as people, you know? Just wanted to say thanks for writing this.

    Honestly, you are one of the people I miss most from Vandy because you are always so down-to-earth, friendly, and with it. Never underestimate how strong you are! If getting the PhD, landing a job, and getting tenure are your goals, I have no doubt you’ll succeed. Even if Vanderbilt is not the most encouraging of places, perhaps it is the stone against which you are sharpening yourself.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you Morgan! I miss you a lot and wish you the best of luck teaching in NY. I miss you here because you were always one of the people who spoke your truth, even if it went against what others believed. I try to remember to do that as well.

  10. Morgan MacDonald on November 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Fantastic article, Whitney!

    We all struggle through graduate school, but I think we don’t always take the time (or interest, truth be told) to see how our fellow graduate students are doing. I’m not at Vandy anymore, but I so appreciate you bravely sharing your experiences! As a a white woman who came straight from undergrad into the program, I always felt underestimated (belittled?) and ignored, but it’s true that you probably feel that even more. We have to support each other – not just as women or academics or mothers, but as people, you know? Just wanted to say thanks for writing this.

    Honestly, you are one of the people I miss most from Vandy because you are always so down-to-earth, friendly, and with it. Never underestimate how strong you are! If getting the PhD, landing a job, and getting tenure are your goals, I have no doubt you’ll succeed. Even if Vanderbilt is not the most encouraging of places, perhaps it is the stone against which you are sharpening yourself.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you Morgan! I miss you a lot and wish you the best of luck teaching in NY. I miss you here because you were always one of the people who spoke your truth, even if it went against what others believed. I try to remember to do that as well.

  11. Morgan MacDonald on November 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Fantastic article, Whitney!

    We all struggle through graduate school, but I think we don’t always take the time (or interest, truth be told) to see how our fellow graduate students are doing. I’m not at Vandy anymore, but I so appreciate you bravely sharing your experiences! As a a white woman who came straight from undergrad into the program, I always felt underestimated (belittled?) and ignored, but it’s true that you probably feel that even more. We have to support each other – not just as women or academics or mothers, but as people, you know? Just wanted to say thanks for writing this.

    Honestly, you are one of the people I miss most from Vandy because you are always so down-to-earth, friendly, and with it. Never underestimate how strong you are! If getting the PhD, landing a job, and getting tenure are your goals, I have no doubt you’ll succeed. Even if Vanderbilt is not the most encouraging of places, perhaps it is the stone against which you are sharpening yourself.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you Morgan! I miss you a lot and wish you the best of luck teaching in NY. I miss you here because you were always one of the people who spoke your truth, even if it went against what others believed. I try to remember to do that as well.

  12. Morgan MacDonald on November 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Fantastic article, Whitney!

    We all struggle through graduate school, but I think we don’t always take the time (or interest, truth be told) to see how our fellow graduate students are doing. I’m not at Vandy anymore, but I so appreciate you bravely sharing your experiences! As a a white woman who came straight from undergrad into the program, I always felt underestimated (belittled?) and ignored, but it’s true that you probably feel that even more. We have to support each other – not just as women or academics or mothers, but as people, you know? Just wanted to say thanks for writing this.

    Honestly, you are one of the people I miss most from Vandy because you are always so down-to-earth, friendly, and with it. Never underestimate how strong you are! If getting the PhD, landing a job, and getting tenure are your goals, I have no doubt you’ll succeed. Even if Vanderbilt is not the most encouraging of places, perhaps it is the stone against which you are sharpening yourself.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you Morgan! I miss you a lot and wish you the best of luck teaching in NY. I miss you here because you were always one of the people who spoke your truth, even if it went against what others believed. I try to remember to do that as well.

  13. Lisa on November 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Say word.

  14. Lisa on November 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Say word.

  15. Lisa on November 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Say word.

  16. Lisa on November 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Say word.

  17. Bibi Gnagno on November 6, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    This article is powerful! Thank you for writing it. I have since shared it with my female friends of color with whom I attended Smith College, our experience was what you described in your article. After graduating from a predominately white instution that was a women’s college and then attending another predominately white institution for grad school, the stress can get all too real and the microaggressions, which is the most eloquent way to put it, get to be overwhelming. It’s a breath of fresh air to know that you’re not doing it alone and have others out there in the same situation who have experienced it,dealt with it and thrived.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Yes, the load becomes lighter when we realize we are not carrying it alone. Best of luck to you and thank you thank you thank you for sharing!

  18. Bibi Gnagno on November 6, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    This article is powerful! Thank you for writing it. I have since shared it with my female friends of color with whom I attended Smith College, our experience was what you described in your article. After graduating from a predominately white instution that was a women’s college and then attending another predominately white institution for grad school, the stress can get all too real and the microaggressions, which is the most eloquent way to put it, get to be overwhelming. It’s a breath of fresh air to know that you’re not doing it alone and have others out there in the same situation who have experienced it,dealt with it and thrived.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Yes, the load becomes lighter when we realize we are not carrying it alone. Best of luck to you and thank you thank you thank you for sharing!

  19. Bibi Gnagno on November 6, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    This article is powerful! Thank you for writing it. I have since shared it with my female friends of color with whom I attended Smith College, our experience was what you described in your article. After graduating from a predominately white instution that was a women’s college and then attending another predominately white institution for grad school, the stress can get all too real and the microaggressions, which is the most eloquent way to put it, get to be overwhelming. It’s a breath of fresh air to know that you’re not doing it alone and have others out there in the same situation who have experienced it,dealt with it and thrived.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Yes, the load becomes lighter when we realize we are not carrying it alone. Best of luck to you and thank you thank you thank you for sharing!

  20. Bibi Gnagno on November 6, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    This article is powerful! Thank you for writing it. I have since shared it with my female friends of color with whom I attended Smith College, our experience was what you described in your article. After graduating from a predominately white instution that was a women’s college and then attending another predominately white institution for grad school, the stress can get all too real and the microaggressions, which is the most eloquent way to put it, get to be overwhelming. It’s a breath of fresh air to know that you’re not doing it alone and have others out there in the same situation who have experienced it,dealt with it and thrived.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Yes, the load becomes lighter when we realize we are not carrying it alone. Best of luck to you and thank you thank you thank you for sharing!

  21. CARMEL DUNCAN on November 7, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Great article Whitney. This article is powerful. I think every African American Women should read this and share their thoughts and concerns as a female of color we have and will continue to deal with racism in this society as a whole. But the choices we make will determine a positve or negative outcome. This kind of experince can make us thrive and stand strong or fall and make us weak.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Love Momma Duncan

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Thank you Momma Duncan! I know just how strong you are because of how strong and beautiful your daughters are. Thank you for being such a great role model!

  22. CARMEL DUNCAN on November 7, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Great article Whitney. This article is powerful. I think every African American Women should read this and share their thoughts and concerns as a female of color we have and will continue to deal with racism in this society as a whole. But the choices we make will determine a positve or negative outcome. This kind of experince can make us thrive and stand strong or fall and make us weak.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Love Momma Duncan

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Thank you Momma Duncan! I know just how strong you are because of how strong and beautiful your daughters are. Thank you for being such a great role model!

  23. CARMEL DUNCAN on November 7, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Great article Whitney. This article is powerful. I think every African American Women should read this and share their thoughts and concerns as a female of color we have and will continue to deal with racism in this society as a whole. But the choices we make will determine a positve or negative outcome. This kind of experince can make us thrive and stand strong or fall and make us weak.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Love Momma Duncan

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Thank you Momma Duncan! I know just how strong you are because of how strong and beautiful your daughters are. Thank you for being such a great role model!

  24. CARMEL DUNCAN on November 7, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Great article Whitney. This article is powerful. I think every African American Women should read this and share their thoughts and concerns as a female of color we have and will continue to deal with racism in this society as a whole. But the choices we make will determine a positve or negative outcome. This kind of experince can make us thrive and stand strong or fall and make us weak.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Love Momma Duncan

    • Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Thank you Momma Duncan! I know just how strong you are because of how strong and beautiful your daughters are. Thank you for being such a great role model!

  25. Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    What a journey! I was actually really really nervous to write the essay. I felt like I was revealing just too much. Too much of the academy, too much of my story, too much of myself.

    But through reading other posts and seeing all of your confirmation I realized this was just another step for me. I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this empowering, uplifiting and REAL series and thank you all for joining in on this journey with me.

    I hope that you all fare well on your journeys and find the freeing spirit that accompanies sharing your story. We can do this!

    Be blessed,

    Whitney

  26. Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    What a journey! I was actually really really nervous to write the essay. I felt like I was revealing just too much. Too much of the academy, too much of my story, too much of myself.

    But through reading other posts and seeing all of your confirmation I realized this was just another step for me. I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this empowering, uplifiting and REAL series and thank you all for joining in on this journey with me.

    I hope that you all fare well on your journeys and find the freeing spirit that accompanies sharing your story. We can do this!

    Be blessed,

    Whitney

  27. Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    What a journey! I was actually really really nervous to write the essay. I felt like I was revealing just too much. Too much of the academy, too much of my story, too much of myself.

    But through reading other posts and seeing all of your confirmation I realized this was just another step for me. I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this empowering, uplifiting and REAL series and thank you all for joining in on this journey with me.

    I hope that you all fare well on your journeys and find the freeing spirit that accompanies sharing your story. We can do this!

    Be blessed,

    Whitney

  28. Whitney Laster on November 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    What a journey! I was actually really really nervous to write the essay. I felt like I was revealing just too much. Too much of the academy, too much of my story, too much of myself.

    But through reading other posts and seeing all of your confirmation I realized this was just another step for me. I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this empowering, uplifiting and REAL series and thank you all for joining in on this journey with me.

    I hope that you all fare well on your journeys and find the freeing spirit that accompanies sharing your story. We can do this!

    Be blessed,

    Whitney

  29. Sara on November 10, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great treatment of this wonderful subject. a women who doesn’t ask for anything deserves everything.

  30. Sara on November 10, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great treatment of this wonderful subject. a women who doesn’t ask for anything deserves everything.

  31. Sara on November 10, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great treatment of this wonderful subject. a women who doesn’t ask for anything deserves everything.

  32. Sara on November 10, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great treatment of this wonderful subject. a women who doesn’t ask for anything deserves everything.

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