Academia can be a heck of a place. It is exhausting and sometimes does not feel as rewarding as we are made to believe. For racialized groups, such as Black people, the pressure becomes more pronounced where there is an unwritten but glaring expectation to excel even in areas where other fellow scholars may have failed.
I am Black and tend to think of myself as a productive early-career academic. I can also be tired, even sometimes unmotivated to pursue excellence. Yet in this month of February, which is celebrated widely as Black History Month, I have sought to use my Twitter platform to profile some outstanding Black academics who are doing excellent work. This endeavour, which I took up last year as well, has made me reflect on what the idea of excellence can do to us in our quest to show the world that we also belong here. One may argue that Black excellence seems uncalled for, since there has never been the need to promote White excellence as a hashtag, but the fact is that the existence of #BlackExcellence underpins the need to celebrate the contributions of Black folks who are working in institutions that have historically underappreciated their efforts and contributions.
While celebrating Black excellence is important, there is a need for us to understand the ways in which the idea itself can be exhausting and even harmful to the well-being of Black people. This suggests that the notion of excellence, in particular Black exceptionalism, can conceal the systemic barriers and pressures that Black academics face and yet multiplies the institutional and societal expectations of this racialized group in academia.
Pinning down the fatigue
A common lingua franca in academia is the notion of “publish or perish.” I like writing in general and this is one of the reasons why I pursued a PhD in my field and why I enjoy publishing. But the publish-or-perish notion operates in such a way that makes writing unappealing and daunting. The pressure to publish affects all groups in academia. But for Black academics in particular, the publish-or-perish catchphrase conceals the systemic barriers that inhibit productivity and creates the impression that we are all starting off with an equal playground to publish – thus forgetting gate-keeping practices that provincializes knowledge production and dissemination in the hands of a few (usually White) people.
The second element of the fatigue is academic tokenism. To address institutional racism and systemic bias, Black academics are invited to serve on all sort of committees, boards and initiatives, whether as “Black icons” or tokens or both. Just think of all the unpaid EDI-related work we do that is often framed as our way to make the system better (and I sometimes wonder whether this is to make the institution feel or look good, or to actually improve things). Those that do well at service get called to do even more service, which is very tiring in an environment where service counts for a small fraction of what is needed to be seen as excellent – at least for the typical tenure-track academic who has a 40-40-20 set up.
Another aspect is what I see as the clarion call to “apply, apply, apply!” During my years as a PhD student, we had a departmental policy that required all students to apply for every grant possible until we landed at least one. This was a great strategy because we all know research funding makes grad school a bit more bearable than it would be if one were to rely only on teaching assistantships. This mentality stuck with me, and I have often felt the need to apply for everything for two reasons. First, I know having one successful grant or award creates a ripple effect for subsequent ones. Second, as a minority in academia, my actual chances of being selected for awards and grants (even when I am equally qualified) is not as high as it would be for my White colleagues. I have to confess that I have been relatively successful in my short academic career. Yet, the pressure to “keep up with the good work” is real and exhausting.
The last aspect of the fatigue is perpetual impostor syndrome. For me, this syndrome represents the struggle of belongingness. It is going to be hard for me to forget an elevator encounter with a White professor who, upon seeing the announcement that I won both Trudeau and Vanier doctoral scholarships in the same year (which are the two top-most scholarships at that level in Canada), said “you must be really lucky.” He probably meant well, and I am sure there is a degree of luck involved, but the comment made me feel I just chanced upon these scholarships instead of working hard for them. Even when you are excelling in every way possible, the imposter syndrome can make one feel their contributions are not yet good enough – a feeling that results in the desire to incessantly be productive in order to justify one’s place or position. Both the feeling and its expressed outcomes are not good for anyone’s mental health and well-being.
Doing something about it
One of the first things to know as a Black academic is that you do not owe the university anything more than your White colleagues do. I recently started my academic appointment as part of the first Black cohort hire at McMaster University. I am quite sure there is an unspoken form of expectation that can be summed up as “oh you have arrived; now, do more to show that you really belong here.” As a process that sought to attract the most excellent Black scholars in Canada and overseas, I am already feeling the pressure to do more as though there is already not enough on my CV to indicate that I have surpassed many academic expectations and milestones. To address the fatigue, we should maintain a shift in perspective that positions us to do our best while not feeling we have a debt to pay, over and above what everyone else is doing.
Secondly, it is crucial to learn to say “no” without feeling sorry about it. Our institutions have hundreds of committees and sub-committees. In a system where Black colleagues are often hard to find, it is easy for #BlackExcellence to be equated with how many committees we serve on and how our devoted service pushes the institution to advance efforts around diversity and inclusion. It may even seem like everything is reliant on us and saying no would imply no representation for, or focus on important EDI issues. Resist the urge to think this way and say no when you need to.
Thirdly, collaborate with other colleagues you really like. Having true friends as research collaborators is probably the best support group we can have as Black academics, especially in a world where expectations around incessant productivity can lead us into crashing overdrive sometimes. Academia can be isolating and more so for Black people who face all kinds of systemic barriers that are ingrained into the very architecture of the ivory tower. Related to the third point, we need to establish boundaries of work and happiness. Here, my slogan is work hard and be sure to party even harder! Besides academic work and required service, indulge in things that you truly enjoy. COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning or work arrangements have made me take up what I will consider to be “forced down times,” which I now find to have really helped me with my mental health and general wellbeing. A year ago, I used to be stressed out about missing deadlines, declining invitations and generally saying no to people. But I have learned to embrace it. With three busy kids between the ages of two and seven, I could not have asked for a better way to truly balance my life!
I have to confess I write this piece from some place of privilege as someone who has recently attained tenure even as an early-career scholar and perhaps can afford to not bother about academic expectations the same way other (untenured) Black academics would. None of this is meant to suggest that Black people should not succeed or should not actively pursue excellence because, in fact, that is what we have always done historically, even when recognition for such excellence has not been commensurable. The contribution here is meant to make us reflect on how certain high expectations of racialized productivity have both benign and explicit mental health implications that are often not widely acknowledged or discussed.
We should pursue excellence, win awards, lead major research grants and continue to do great things that will break barriers for future generations of Black scholars. But it is also imperative to occasionally pause, breathe, accept that fatigue is real while not feeling we owe the institutional machinery more than our fair share of work and gratitude. While we contribute to shaping institutional change through our efforts, it is important to recognize that the institution will always be there, with or without us. Be you. Be fabulous at what you do, but do not cave in to constructed and racialized societal expectations of what it means to be an exceptional Black academic.
Nathan Andrews is an associate professor in the department of political science at McMaster University. Reach him on Twitter: @Nathan_Andrews1.