Last month on Twitter there was a (still) trending hashtag called #BlackInTheIvory that is giving the space to tell our stories of what it means to be Black in the academy. For me, it is bittersweet as this is not the first, nor will it be the last time, Black folks have spoken about the racism, anti-Blackness, misogynoir, whiteness, and white mediocrity masking as rigor and academic objectivity within the walls of the Ivory Tower. My own career within academia over the past 20 years as a student, faculty member and administrator is awash with stories similar to those being told in 240 character threads. As I moved institutions, positions, and/or departments I would have this underlying hope that the next space/place would be a little different. I convinced myself that I just needed to find the right people who were in the struggle with me and would help me move the institution to do better.
In reality you cannot change that which does not want to be changed. But that does not mean you have to change YOU to fit. And so I tell how my latest #BlackInTheIvory story helped me see that it was time to make a change for the betterment of me and my family, letting the institution be. My goal with this post is to help others decide if these spaces are deserving of you and your talents by speaking about my own turning point with being #BlackInTheIvory.
It began one night after a long day at work. I came home well after 10pm exhausted. I had spent the majority of the afternoon speaking with (and being yelled at) by students of color and a faculty member of color who was egging them on. Decisions I had made were being questioned and with that my character, commitment to justice, and who I was as a person was all put on trial. I spent the rest of the evening navigating politics that left me unable to clearly think as others were looking to dodge the line of fire. I was tired and had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was the beginning of the end for me in administration. I didn’t like the politics nor the inability to actually implement the changes I was told I could implement when I was hired. I also realized that those who said they wanted the changes did not really mean it, as it was a threat to their established identities within the institution. As I laid in bed trying to sleep my body began to jump, unable to settle as the full weight of the past few months/years came tumbling down on me like a wave crashing into the shore. As the water receded, as my body trembles began to subside, I lay in bed and finally — for the first time — told myself the truth.
I was miserable…I had lost the spark that led me to this work so long ago.
More truths than rushed down like downloads from a computer buried somewhere deep in my soul. I had been miserable for years as I tried to find the right niche for myself in the machine called academia. I could easily blame my old adviser or other colleagues or the various administrative bodies that ran the different institutions I had worked at for my misery. But at the end of the day, it was up to me to make the decision on how I wanted to live my life. It was up to me to take a hard look at myself and ask the question I asked plenty of others over the years who were miserable in the academy…why do you stay?
Then I told myself the deepest truth of them all.
Who would I be if I left the academy?
That truth shocked me and led me to go on a deep journey of self and uncover where I had lost faith in myself and placed it external to me, onto institutions that fed off this insecurity.
I finally saw with clear eyes that the work I was pouring into institutions was not being reciprocated, and never would -that was not the function of the institution. It is not meant to love (or even like) you back.
As I turned over in bed that night and looked at my husband I realized that my sense of self, who I was and who saw me for me, was right here. I had neglected the places that brought me joy and saw me for Nicole, and not as a production machine. I had neglected my family in order to try and be seen by others who could only see titles and affiliations, not the person themselves. And it was in that moment I told myself it was time for me to rethink my life and how I moved in it. It was time for me to recover my sense of self, my soul.
This was the (re)start of my academic recovery.
If you are at a crossroads in your career or life, what makes you stay? What are the possibilities if you go?
Take a sheet of paper and pen, find a place to sit with few distractions and draw two columns on the paper. Above the first column write “stay” and above the second column write “possibilities if go”. Then write. Write for 5 minutes without thinking too hard, filling the page with what comes to your mind. When the time is up read what you wrote. Which column speaks to your mind more? Which column speaks to your heart more? My suggestion — lean into the heart…