A Retrospective on Academia & Blackness
Today I mustered the courage to retrieve my journal from the crypt that is my bedroom closet. This relic — leather bound, oxblood, 2014 etched across the cover with blue sharpie—does not quietly chronicle the year I began graduate school, the year I moved to another city to pursue higher education, the year I learned what it means to be a black woman in a white institution. No, this Bic blotched artifact harbours the anguish that was only permissible in private, when I had packed up my MacBook Pro and Moleskine notebooks (yes, I needed both), after I had stared out of a bus window wondering why I ever thought that a post graduate education was right for me.
My struggle with mental health dates back to my freshman year of university. I had a feeling something was awry after I had missed two weeks of lectures and tutorials, when I found myself pulling those thick brown dormitory curtains shut at dawn and only waking up for dinner in the dining hall around 7:00pm, after spending 45 minutes under the covers, in the bathroom, in front of the elevator attempting to quell my anxiety. Of course, it is in retrospect that I call this behaviour anxiety, since at the time I had absolutely no tools to recognize it as this. All I saw around me was other students who had it together, who were able to wake up in the morning, go to class, do their work, and excel. Although there was a tiny paragraph at the bottom of my syllabus encouraging students who are in emotional and mental distress to consult the university’s mental health services, I personally did not know anyone who had consulted them.
I sheepishly asked some of my dorm-mates whether they felt that school was weighing on them, and I was met with, “Yeah, calculus is pretty hard but sharing notes with Lisa and Shea really helped.”
“Oh. I see,” I nervously muttered. After several discussions that followed this pattern, I diagnosed myself as lazy and pedestrian, and I quietly powered through the remainder of the year nursing my wounds in isolation.
It wasn’t until I had graduated and entered the larger world that I was able to validate and give voice to my anxiety. I came to learn that more than 42% of Ontario university students suffer with some form of mental health, nearly 60% of students report feeling a sense of hopelessness, 43% are unable to function in the university setting, and between 6-9% seriously considered suicide during their student tenure. It turns out that my experience was not novel, and that mental health problems begin around the average age of university students.
These figures were startling to me, and it was a clear sign of the stigma that surrounded mental health, especially in the early-mid 2000s when I first began university. Television shows, like HBO’s Girls, were cathartic and corroborative, and I resolved to carry with me this imaginary New York girl gang—Hannah, Shoshanna, and Jessa, naturally—with me as I packed up my things and moved Southern Ontario to begin an MA program.
Wow, was I wrong. For all the articles I had read, for all the episodes of Girls I had binge watched at 2 AM, I was unprepared for the variable that would intensify my anxiety: my Blackness. In my undergraduate program, there were at least three other black students and even more people of colour—this of course does not constitute a majority or even an equilibrium, but it is always important to recognize these small victories where possible. In my graduate program, I had one fellow student say to me: “I’ve never heard of someone black studying Classics,” and I came to understand that this was the general surprise people felt when they met me during orientation.
As the only person of colour, I was forced to stand motionless as awe-struck professors sunk their hands into my natural hair, to maintain a closed mouth smile as fellow students accused me of reverse racism for affixing the prefix “white” when discussing literature and film, to beam proudly as a professor disclosed, “You know, as our department’s only person of colour we depend on you to keep us in check.”
This last ascription was the most problematic. On the one hand, I was satisfied and even thrilled that my identity was being validated by the administration, that they recognized my dissimilarity. On the other hand, I cannot begin to express the amount of anxiety this burden placed upon my already anxious soul. I was only able to navigate my Janus-facedness by seeking help from an off-campus clinical psychologist, who inadvertently encouraged me to publicly discuss my battle with anxiety and identity in academia.
Until recently, the effect of racial identity on mental health hadn’t been discussed outside of black feminist theoretical literature. These days brilliant and brave writers such as Tracy Clayton and Minaa B have begun to share their stories, and searching “black women + mental health” populates heaps of articles, illustrations, and psychological studies. I encourage all women of colour, especially black women, to add to the growing girl gang of mental health champions—seek professional help, create communities, demand safe spaces, practice self care, and, most importantly, talk about it.