Is Academia Safe for Black Women? How Bias and Racism Affect Faculty Mental Health

The death of Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey and ousting of Claudine Gay have raised concerns about the safety of Black women in the predominantly white male academic space.

Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey (left) and Claudine Gay. (Lincoln University and The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey, a beloved professor at an historically Black university in Missouri, committed suicide on Jan. 8, reportedly as a result of racism by the school’s president.

Harvard University president Claudine Gay recently resigned amid accusations of plagiarism. Many view her resignation as an illustration of the broader issue of marginalizing Black women within the predominantly white male academic space.

Academia is not inherently designed for the success of Black, Indigenous and people of color faculty. These institutions were initially created for and catered to white people, placing BIPOC in a position where they must succeed within systems not designed for their success.

My journey as a Black woman in academia has been marked by success but also overwhelming fatigue.

While Black people make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute less than 6 percent of faculty at public and private nonprofit institutions, according to federal data analyzed by the American Association of University Professors in 2020.

Faculty and administrators employ diversity tactics—like offering increasing start-up packages or emphasizing the institution’s alignment with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) missions—to attract individuals from diverse backgrounds into academia. However, this approach often results in BIPOC hires becoming entrenched in existing systems rather than creating new, inclusive systems. 

My journey as a Black woman in academia, focusing on researching sexual disparities among Black girls and women, has been marked by success but also overwhelming fatigue. The importance of my work has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health, and I will be going up for tenure early. Still, academia has robbed me of my joy and almost broken me. 

I am part of the College of Nursing, which has historically been predominantly white and female. In this field, 81 percent of nurses identify as white, and 92 percent as female. This demographic puts the field of nursing at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding social justice and racism. 

Due to my consistently high achievements, I am seen and treated as the “Black star” or “Super Black Professor,” which creates internalized pressure. This pressure comes from faculty notions of what “we want” or “what is best for the institution.” As a Black academic, I understand that many feel as if they should be grateful for this opportunity. Being the first in various areas within academic institutions, however, means that there is no established blueprint, limited support, and no guidance on navigating and thriving in academia

In academia, the presence of BIPOC scholars as students, faculty and administration is crucial. They are often recognized for bringing innovative ideas and employing creative approaches or methods. Many BIPOC scholars actively contribute to research supporting DEI initiatives, and they engage in community-based research to address health disparities. Additionally, Black scholars play a crucial role in generating knowledge that helps institutions understand the experiences of diverse populations, becoming a vital voice in addressing disparities within marginalized communities. Their lived experiences of systematic oppression also fill a crucial gap in research.

The responsibility of being a Black scholar in academia weighs heavy due to the high expectations related to research, service, and teaching. For many, the work aims to change interdisciplinary paradigms and boundaries with research. This includes mentoring, being a role model for students of color, and serving on committees needing diverse perspectives. 

Black scholars often experience unique challenges of thriving due to personal and professional barriers. There aren’t many structures to support Black scholars, especially in racial and gender politics. It is exhausting and discouraging to be a part of these systems that create barriers not only for Black scholars but also for the communities they work with.

Centering Black scholars in roles critical to the institution involves challenging the role of white supremacy addressing systemic issues within academia that create unrealistic expectations.


My own research uncovers institutional politics surrounding the tenure track and addresses systematic barriers, including challenges from human resources and institutional review boards. These obstacles involve withholding resources and hindering the hiring of essential research support personnel.

To meet such high expectations, Black women must be strong and confident in their work. Research shows that this need to be a “strong Black woman” is influenced by the media and perpetuated in academia. 

However, this strength may intimidate others and give the impression that Black women don’t need help. If we ask for help or stand up for ourselves, there is a fear that we may be seen as weak, labeled as the Angry Black Woman, or perceived as demanding—these are all negative stereotypes are often unfairly associated with being a Black woman. Consequently, the image of the “Black star,” navigating the lines between high-achieving, strong, passionate and angry, is commonly perceived as threatening.

So, how do Black women in academia thrive? 

The responsibilities faced by Black academics are substantial, affecting mental health and personal identity. Although my research and health disparities work is a labor of love, studies indicate that burnout is common. 

When Black scholars are subjected to an unrealistic standard, mistakes like the accidental lack of citation or plagiarism can result in resignation. The intense pressure imposed on Black scholars under such demanding expectations can tragically escalate to the point of suicide.   

The current academic climate underscores the necessity for changes within the academy concerning the production, cultivation and retention of Black scholars. Centering Black scholars in roles critical to the institution involves challenging the role of white supremacy addressing systemic issues within academia that create unrealistic expectations.

It is time for real change.

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Natasha Crooks is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.