Posted on June 16, 2020

The Life of a Black Academic: Tired and Terrorized

Henrika McCoy, Inside Higher Ed, June 12, 2020

By now you have probably seen posts on social media written by your black colleagues indicating they are tired. Just to be clear, that weariness is long-standing, and it is no secret to other black people. It has simply now morphed into exhaustion that is so overwhelming that we are now voicing it out loud to you.

For months, we have seen countless reports of how the COVID-19 global pandemic has led to disproportionate numbers of black people becoming ill or dying every day. Just know that those numbers are rooted in the second version of America’s original sin: slavery (the first version being the almost complete annihilation of, and the stealing of land from, the indigenous American Indian population). {snip}

As if the assault of COVID-19 on black bodies as a covert method of white supremacy and terrorism were not enough, we are increasingly and regularly witnessing the overt assault of white supremacy and terrorism on black bodies. We have had to hear about and witness the murder of black men and women by those charged with serving and protecting them and others, who are self-appointed yet awarded the privilege to act as arbiters of justice against black people. We have been inundated with videos where black people have had their right to simply inhabit a space be questioned and restricted because white supremacy has rendered that power a birthright.


What has not been acknowledged is the world of terror enveloping many black academics that has changed feeling tired to absolute exhaustion. What is terror? Terror is “a state of intense or overwhelming fear”; it is living with “violence or the threat of violence.” And I purposely use the word “terror” because that is what you feel when you are afraid to leave your home because you don’t know if you, or your loved ones, or even a stranger who looks like you, will return home with a virus that might be a death sentence, or if you will be murdered before you can return home. It is important that academia understand this, because it is our reality. It is not an excuse should productivity lag, or should we fail to laugh or smile on cue, but our reality.


The problem is that my exhaustion is like that of many of my black colleagues, and we are still expected to meet extraordinary expectations. Extraordinary because, unless you are at a historically black college or university, you are one of a few or perhaps even the one and only, which means you carry the burden of representing all black people — especially when someone black does something wrong. Extraordinary because it is well-known, even if not always acknowledged, that to be black and successful you must be, at the bare minimum, twice as good as your nonblack colleagues. Extraordinary because the pandemic has created additional stressors and new responsibilities, and for black faculty members, these are being added to the extra responsibilities that we already have. Extraordinary because we as black academics are living in a growing state of terror that only we can truly understand.

{snip} You are not tired. Your black colleagues are tired. They are tired, weary, exhausted and do not have the luxury of resting. They live with the smog of racism so eloquently described almost 25 years ago by Beverly Tatum.

Just remember, eliminating racism and white supremacy is not a cause. It is a necessity, because only when that goal is accomplished will your black colleagues be able to rest, breathe and live terror-free.