Navigating the Collegiate Space as a Black Woman Today
Lynette A. Shaw
To be a Black college student who is a woman, in today’s climate, is to take on the overwhelming intersecting identities that will ultimately flavor one’s collegiate journey. Navigating pedagogical spaces in college, is not only a very racialized experience, but a gendered one as well. Now, more than ever, Black college students are operating under conditions of rampant misogynoir. We have all heard of the “Superwoman complex” that us Black women tend to carry around. We take it upon ourselves to save the day because society has taught us that we are “strong Black women”, and that we don’t quite fit the description for being “delicate”. This harmful ideation is reinforced in our classrooms. I distinctly remember last spring, when the violence that was being perpetrated against the Black community by law enforcement made headlines (once again), and how disheartening it was that my professors carried a very “business as usual” attitude. My classmates and I were grief-stricken and beat down from Racial Battle Fatigue, I had friends missing classes because they were leading protests, and it seemed like all that our institutions could do for us was send out a “comforting” email. In fact, the “unprecedented times” email has become a running joke throughout my entire generation. The laughter we experience only covers up the pain we feel inside. And though we are good at masking pain, that does not mean that we should have to.
Lately, I have been critically thinking about how to protect myself and others from the burnout that can be inflicted upon people in my demographic. As a Black woman, and a college student, I know firsthand that my struggles will continue to be overlooked if I do not put my own wellness first. This looks different for everyone. For me, I have become especially particular about the free time I do have. A good amount of my current life is comprised of reading, panicking about assignments, churning out papers, crying, and replying to emails. Everything feels impersonal, and sometimes I do not feel seen. The times when I have a break from schoolwork, I unplug and take time to journal, scrapbook, and reclaim my time. I have set boundaries for my emotional currency as well. Long gone are the days where I am arguing until I am blue in the face or explaining my oppression to others. I am not required to read every traumatic headline, and I am not required to dispense my “hot take” about them either. I am also learning to train myself to be less apologetic. If something hurts my feelings or is insensitive, I have the right to call it out. It takes a lot of effort to retrain my brain not to feel like I am “taking up so much space” or to being “too loud”, but I do not deserve to suffer. Whether it is a mantra I write repeatedly in my journal, or listening to my “positive vibrations” playlist, I am beginning to slowly reject those implicit biases that were once planted in my head. Many Black college students know the process of masking pain in zoom calls and churning out assignments while verdicts are being decided. It has become second nature. Code-switching has gone to another level, past deep-acting, and into a double lifestyle. It is seemingly getting harder and harder to fake our “Best Regards” at the end of every email.
Every student around me is either on the verge of burnout or already has. The disconnect between students and professors seems to become greater over time, and this phenomenon seems to disproportionately be affected Black college students. Not too long ago, I had become so overwhelmed by schoolwork, that I had simply curled into a ball on the floor and cried. It was only 11:30 PM, but somehow, I already knew I would easily be up until about 3 or 4 AM doing schoolwork. Sometimes when talking to people who are not undergraduate students in the global pandemic, I have noticed that their first inclination is to examine the issue of the individual. I have had people ask me about why I had not budgeted my time better or been focused. At this point, I will hold up more fully color-coded planner, that plans each week out intricately. This issue seems a bit bigger than an individual. The night that I curled up on the floor, a friend came up to me and said, “Hey, you know you’re more than just “due at 11:59, right?”. I knew that in the grand scheme they were right, but in the moment, I did not feel that way. How could that be true when the exact opposite is reinforced in my head week after week? Isn’t that classical conditioning at it is finest? Rather, I have come to see myself as a composite of percentages of different courses. I am typically a “Great work, but dig a little deeper”, or a “would’ve loved to see you expand on this”. I fail to see myself as “Lynette Shaw”, but rather, “Shaw, Lynette” as my virtual grade book greets me each day. My sleep schedule suffers week to week, as well as my diet. All my friends share the same look in their eye. It something past exhaustion...it is misery.
Being a Black college student right now, when the world is constantly on the verge of a new horror, is terrifying. It is nerve-wracking to worry about your family members and friends getting hurt. When trying to handle all these things at once, college students alike are often met with phrases like, “College is hard, professors are tricky, we all have to go through it”. My question is: in any other scenario— whether it be family trauma, toxic relationships, or generational habits, we would argue to break the toxic cycle...so why are the rules different when it is applied to the collegiate environment? Why is class “business as usual” during a racial uprising? Why do the “unprecedented times” emails continue to flood my inbox? This impersonal nature is why we Black students fall between the gaps. I understand that no one has a perfect college experience. I also recognize the privilege that I hold being able to attend a college institution in the first place. However, the experiences my fellow students and I have had throughout these past few semesters have brought to light the institutional flaws that have shaped the way we have navigated our own college education. Nevertheless, we seem to make it work—like always.
Sources on "Misogynoir":
Sources on "Racial Battle Fatigue":
Resources for the Black Mental Health of Black Women & College Students: