Dr. Catherine Squires: Stress Among Black Women in Academia

From a previous column by Dr. Squires: “There is no going ‘back to normal.’ There is only re-entry. We must take time to reflect and to plan how to re-engage with each other in the wake of failures we have witnessed in health care, education, law enforcement, media, and government.”

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum.


I left academia for good two years ago. I loved doing research, I loved teaching, and I loved problem solving with colleagues, but in the end, it wasn’t worth the constant pushback, undercutting, and sometimes open aggression I experienced. In the end, it was an act of self-preservation, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, to care for myself enough to leave my profession.

I told my friends and family I was glad I was walking out on my own two feet and not going out feet first. The dark humor I shared with them was based in my own struggles to stay healthy and whole. By the time I left, I had experienced a miscarriage, time in the cardiac ward, panic attacks, insomnia, depression and more.

That dark humor has re-emerged as a waking nightmare in the past few months. I cringed at the attacks on Claudine Gay and sobbed at the heartbreaking suicide of Antoinette Candia-Bailey. In the last two weeks, three of my Black women friends — all esteemed scholars and leaders — have shared diagnoses of cancer, heart failure, and more that erupted as they tried to make progress at their institutions. They had been asked to reform and renew under the sign of equity, only to face roadblocks, resentment, and retrenchment.

The nightmare continues in the world of finance, where conservative activist Edward Blum is suing the Black-woman founded Fearless Fund, which supports underrepresented entrepreneurs. The nightmare rages in K-12 education, where weaponized PTAs and school boards have successfully banned books — many by Black women — by the shelf load, aided and abetted by the powers of state legislatures and the bully pulpit of many Republican candidates.

It is way past time for people to publicly show their support for Black women in their institutions. The time is now: before the witch hunts intensify, before the hospitalizations increase, before more early deaths devastate more families and friends. It is time for allies to stand up and show up to defend us during the meeting, not after the fact in a snarky critique of our adversaries in an email three days later.

It is time for people to stop being shocked that this keeps happening to us, and to us specifically.

In the tradition of the 1600 Black women who took out a page in the New York Times in 1991 to support Anita Hill as she spoke truth to power, in the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer who questioned America’s commitment to democracy, and in the spirit of compassion and love for all those Black women who continue to lead, excel, and maintain their determination in the face of incredible odds, I implore everyone to reach out today — not tomorrow, not next week — to tell the Black women leaders in your organization that you will be by their side if and when trouble comes their way.

Tell them you appreciate their work and be ready — start practicing now — to show that support in the bright light of day, in the glare of media spotlights, and under the florescent bulbs of the conference room.

It is time for people to join those of us who stand in the gap “between hope and despair,” as many practitioners and scholars of social justice so eloquently describe the current stage of struggle for social justice. Support Black women as they lead efforts to make changes that result in healthier, more just conditions for everyone.

Black women have been on the frontlines for universal childcare, healthcare, sick leave, maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, affordable housing, environmental justice, and more. Nationwide, political campaigns and social movement organizations expect us to show up — without question — at the ballot box, at the march, at the rally. It is long past time for that kind of solidarity to be reciprocated.

We do not expect candidates and movement organizers to be perfect to earn our support, and we should not have to work twice as hard to get half as much (if any) support in return.

As you consider how to support Black women leaders, reflect on these questions:

  • Are Black women leaders you are connected with held to reasonable standards and expectations, or are folks expecting “Black girl magic” miracles?
  • What types of problems are Black women being asked to solve in your community?
  • How long have those problems existed? How complex or severe are they?
  • What resources are necessary to effectively address these problems?
  • Have Black women been given the resources and/or the authority to use them?
  • What is a reasonable timeline for solving problems and creating change?
  • Has the organization acknowledged that change is difficult and there will likely be resistance to change?
  • Is there a strategy for managing anticipated resistance that involves the full organization?
  • How do you show  support for Black woman leaders when resistance from those who push back against their leadership gets uncomfortable?

These are questions to think about when any new leader takes the helm, but all too often Black women are not afforded the same consideration, the same start-up time, or given the same measure of grace.

Minnesota Women’s Press is building a forum to discuss this and related topics; reach out to crystal@womenspress.com if you would like to be part of it in some way.

Related Reading

The Guardian: Right wing activist Christopher Rufo led to the dismissal of Harvard’s first Black woman president


3 replies
  1. Patricia Neal
    Patricia Neal says:

    This is so painful to read. I am not in academia, but know how excellent Catherine’s work was in her previous career. I know several black leaders in academia who have suffered similar experiences. I am sorry. Very sorry.

  2. Helen C Gagel
    Helen C Gagel says:

    As Dr. Squires so eloquently states, Black women have been “showing up” for decades to support progressive and equitable policies and legislation as well as the candidates who would promote and enact those measures. It is past time for their work to be recognized and for them to be shown the respect they so richly deserve.

  3. Aisha Durham
    Aisha Durham says:

    Dr. Squires, I am sorry that you have experienced what I recognize as violence in the academy. You have served as a model for me since my graduate education in the academy. It is quite unfortunate there are generations of Black women academics who face the same strife that adversely impacts our personal and professional lives.

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