Written by Erykah Betterson
We don’t have it all together - and that’s ok.
College is a place of growth — in education, self-awareness, leadership and work skills. The benefits of higher education have been lauded and encouraged in Western society for centuries and the bettering of oneself through academia has positive repercussions for a person’s status. A group perhaps overlooked in the discussion of problems among the college population is Black women. While Black women are outpacing other groups in college enrollment at 9.7 percent (8.7 percent for Asian women, 7.1 percent for White women and 6.1 percent of White men), Black women have an experience that is unique to that of other students and endure a particularly difficult uphill battle (Osborne 2016).
A different standard
We should not see a number like the one above and automatically assume that Black women must have an advantage over their peers. The statistics indicate that the education of more Black women is surely positive, but there are lingering problems that exist just beneath the surface. Much like their peers, Black women are not exempt from the challenges that await them on their campuses as they mature into adulthood or professionalism. The stress of a new territory, challenging schoolwork, and accountability is a difficult shift for any student – and higher education across the U.S. continues to find ways to alleviate these burdens for students. Unfortunately, we seem to hold Black women to a completely different standard – one of superhuman strength.
Black women simultaneously put too much pressure on themselves and absorb the insinuations that they must carry the world on their shoulders from our society. In light of mental health, educational success and professional fulfillment this is not a healthy way for women who chose the path of higher education to function. This is evident in their view that they must “be strong” and so hide their need for help and support.
The strong Black woman
In her article “Keeping Up Appearances, Getting Fed Up: The Embodiment of Strength Among African American Women”, author Michelle discusses the lack of boundaries that exist for Black women, which impacts their ability to adequately care for themselves first. She says, “Strong women… [are] raised to make and maintain few boundaries between their needs and those of others,” and “Encouraging strength is a way of preparing Black girls and young women for a life filled with adversity... However, when strength is expected of women under all circumstances, Black women can be placed at risk of being subjected to situations that no one should have to endure (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2005).”
The purpose of becoming college educated is attempting to free yourself of hardship, not to come to terms with its inevitability simply because of who you are. If Black women are taught in school that they can bear more than their peers, they are only setting themselves up for failure in the workplace and mounting the perfect storm for an eventual breakdown.
Strength at all costs
Michelle explains the inner dialogue of Black women in this struggle to attain the super-human strength required of them. During her research of university women, she found that many do understand the impossibility of being strong in all circumstances and find different ways to cope. The coping mechanisms are unhealthy, unfortunately, as Black women feel they need to hide their vulnerabilities, fears and uncertainties. Often, healthier outlets are not afforded for them to process these feelings and they will resort to over-eating, abusing their children or otherwise harming themselves or others. One of the most profound ideas proposed by the article was that Black women often fight against “a gender role that refuses to allow Black women the experiences of “failure, nervous breakdowns, leisured existences, or anything else that would suggest that they are complex, feeling human beings.”
Black women in college are just as susceptible to the shortcomings of their peers, but when we consider them to be stronger than the rest, we diminish their ability to not be OK, to ask for help and to breathe.
Perhaps on a more personal note (but equally relevant and important) is the impact that dating can have regarding Black women on college campuses. In 2016, for example, there were 800,000 more Black women studying on college campuses than Black men, which researchers found to be a particularly hard fact for this demographic when navigating the cultural and personal issues of romantic relationships. Black women were found to be at greater risk for depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame and despair when considering interracial dating in an unfamiliar territory. Many of these feelings are unfounded but stem from Black women’s fear of rejection from the White community and ostracization of the Black community, thus creating a seemingly hopeless scenario (Bartman, 2015).
Though different from the discussion of strength, this is yet another example of the impossibilities placed upon the shoulders of Black women in college.
Solutions to the dilemma
While there are many problems that are experienced by African American women, there are also plenty of solutions that college campuses can implement to promote change and support their students. One of them is in the area of mentoring. Studies have shown how impactful a mentor can be in your life and the same is especially true for Black women.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black women do not have nearly enough representation in those they are receiving instruction from. Black female full-time professors make up a national average of 2 percent of the profession (NCES 2019). There is a sore lack of Black female faculty to serve in this role of mentorship, but even connections regardless of race prove to be beneficial to the well-being of Black women. Some professionals in the field have proposed custom counseling services that recognize the bond between Black women and subsequently provide mental health services integrated into the crucial networks that they have organically created. General support and understanding for the unique challenges this demographic faces will undoubtedly go a long way.
By recognizing both the triumphs and deficiencies of their experience in college, we can provide a more well-rounded environment that continues to foster the success of Black women. We can remind Black women across college campuses that they are not required to “be strong” in all circumstances, and that it’s OK to not have it all together.