Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Women Advancing Together blogs have been aimed at a broad audience and applied especially to women in academia. The following is the first in a series in which I focus on the intersection of being Black and a woman in academia.
In these blogs, I interviewed Black women working in different areas of higher education and academic medicine about their experiences with racism. I asked the following:
I am interested in having you tell about a time or incident when you were discriminated against (or bullied) in higher ed because of being a Black woman. And what either helped you get through that time or what do you wish would have happened? Did you have allies at the time? If yes, what did they do for you? Who could or should have stepped up but didn’t? Also, any advice based on your experiences to give black women in higher ed and/or white colleagues.
This first interview was with Valencia P. Walker, MD, MPH (Neonatologist) on July 3, 2020.
tl;dr Black and Brown people need white people with character, courage and conviction in order to dismantle structural racism in higher education
Dr. Walker: When you asked the question, the very first thought that came to mind was what happened to me in high school. When we talk about the experiences of being Black and of being a woman, it’s intersectional. I think the other thing that is critical to remember is that there’s something else that intersects as well. We don’t always explicitly call it out, but it’s the idea of being a highly intelligent Black woman. There are assumptions made about Black people and part of those assumptions are that you’re not supposed to be really smart.
What do you do when you identify as an intelligent person who is constantly being questioned and invalidated? What do you do when you’re treated differently when you walk into a room because of the color of your skin? What do you do when you’re treated differently because you’re a woman? I think one of the things that is particularly difficult is that you want all of your identities to come together in harmony. But there’s almost no place in your life where that can happen. So, I told you the first thought that came to mind was what happened to me in high school.
I had three teachers. One was a Black woman. She taught me Chemistry. She saw that I was a smart science kid and got me to apply for a summer science program at a historically Black college—an HBCU. It was the first time in my life that I was around other smart Black kids that were a lot like me. It was an amazing affirmation and positively altered my career trajectory! However, I also had two other teachers. One white teacher explicitly told me that she lowered my grade because I needed to know what it felt like to make B’s. She wanted me to know that I wouldn’t always be an “A” student. I had another white teacher who literally bullied me. She terrorized me in her class and frequently came up with reasons to give me detention in school. The interesting thing was, I really didn’t tell my parents about it until just before I graduated. As a teenager, it was difficult to process, but it was also the precursor to the realities of my current profession.
As a Black woman in academic medicine, there are people who feel threatened because my mere presence creates a cognitive dissonance that they can’t manage. They are confused that I am the one showing up as the smart and capable person telling them what to do. What I learned is that some people will not accept it and will try to “put me in place.” They want me to know that I’m not supposed to expect excellence and success. What I didn’t know in high school, but I know now, is that I have to figure out “How do I navigate in this space so that I make you comfortable, so that you don’t make my life miserable.” That’s what it’s like. Of course, I know that’s not the ideal approach. I want to show up and be my whole authentic self. At the same time, how do I survive an environment that can’t accept me for me? How do I safely navigate these hostile encounters? Yes, I struggled with how those teachers treated me in high school because it didn’t make sense. Now, I’m seeing how those types of interactions are still playing out in my professional life.
I expend constant energy and effort into how I can be smart, but not too smart. How can I be Black, but “not too Black”? How can I be assertive, confident, and capable—as a woman—and not be seen as arrogant, and condescending, and overbearing and rude? “Am I smiling enough?”
Everybody has to deal with somebody they don’t like. But what do you do when you see other people getting away with yelling and screaming at people, not showing up when they’re supposed to show up, not being as competent, and you know that you’re being held to a different standard? Because, again, you’re not supposed to show-up in these spaces anyway.
I tell myself that I shouldn’t allow anyone to make me a victim. I should stand up for myself, I should speak out, I should try to change my environment for the better. When I do, though, I am accused of “playing the race card”. People get upset and say, “How dare you accuse me of being prejudiced or biased?” or, “We treat everyone the same!” But, they don’t. If you want to stick to that comforting lie, then you’re even more angry and frustrated with me for pointing out truth.
If I am ineffective in preventing myself from being a victim, then I also feel like a hypocrite. If I can’t even protect myself, then how can I protect my students? How can I protect my mentees? If I can’t even make it better for myself, then I am a failure. I can’t see the accomplishments that I’ve made that are valuable or noteworthy. I care the most about making this environment better – making it less racist. But that doesn’t show up in grant applications. It doesn’t show up as publications in prestigious journals. My efforts remain marginalized, invisible, and devalued – until we have a situation like what happened to George Floyd. All of a sudden, people recognize, “Oh, you’re an expert. Oh, we need you. Oh, how can we not be racist?”
Now, I am going into overdrive trying my best to show-up in so many different spaces because I’m afraid that the window of antiracism opportunities might close. Now, I can’t fail. I’m afraid that if I don’t show up then people might do more harm than good. I also have to prepare for the backlash that is coming. I know that some people are going to dig their heels in and eventually they’re going to see me as the problem. Why am I insisting on dismantling the system that has benefited them?
What people usually mean when they say they want change is that they want more evidence of tokenism. That want to put you on the brochure and brag about their diversity numbers. They want to feel good about helping a few more people who look like me get through the system. That’s not dismantling the system. That’s not making it more equitable. That doesn’t make the system less toxic or less hostile. It doesn’t make my pain and suffering and the exhaustive efforts that I go through to navigate the system any less traumatic. It just makes it more comfortable and accepting to you because, “See, we have a few more Black faces here.” And that keeps me up at night. After all is said and done, will this all end up as more harm than good?
But I have to stay hopeful. That even with all the permutations of hate and intolerance that disguise themselves in new ways, we have to stay hopeful that there’s another way. We are hopeful that more people are waking up, and more people are trying, and more people are understanding that you can be an ally—that’s a good goal. I can’t remember who said it, but we really need you to become a co-conspirator.
You shouldn’t need a personal story to understand how real and terrible this is. I shouldn’t have to constantly show up and say, yes, I will put my trauma on display like some sort of trauma porn, so that it can somehow touch your sense of compassion, humanity, and empathy. I shouldn’t have to prove to you that I’m a real person, with real pain who suffers under racism.
You should be able to see racism as a problem for you. It makes you less human. That should be your motivation for change. I understand that different people are starting at different places and that different people will move at different paces in terms of understanding the profound effect of oppression: sexism, ageism, racism, xenophobia. But we’re tired. We’re tired of having to somehow prove our humanity.
Question your own humanity. Why do you need a personal story to decide that you should be better? Why don’t you wake up every day wanting to be better?
People need to understand that a personal story is the most rudimentary aspect of racial awareness. Learning about someone’s personal story is not what sustains change in people. We get personal stories all the time in the media. Eric Garner already died, saying, “I can’t breathe.” That was a personal story. Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor – we already heard about their tragic, personal stories.
Do you know what also happens with personal stories? People vigorously provide counter-narratives and counter-arguments. They debate with points like, “if they had only complied”, “if only this…, “If not that…”. A personal story is just not enough. It’s a start, but it’s far from enough. It’s not a way of creating meaningful, structural change.
There’s a whole process to racial awareness and to taking the path of becoming anti-racist. It requires understanding how structural racism is foundational and fundamental to even the core ideologies that we hold dear as a society and as a profession, e.g. exceptionalism and individualism. Until society is willing to do the work and move to a place of discomfort, it’s like you haven’t even started packing your bags for the journey… Maybe that’s too much to expect of society, but what about the intellectuals in higher education–the people I see as my peers and my colleagues? What is your excuse?
Recently, I was talking with one of my mentors, and I told her that I so often encounter people in diversity, equity, and inclusion spaces trying to create peace and comfort. That seems so wrong to me. This work is constantly bleeding out pain and trauma and suffering that has been normalized over hundreds of years.
You can’t expect to be comfortable under those circumstances.
I’m not comfortable doing my job as a neonatologist. How do I know what it takes for me to be better if I just show up and say, “I want the baby to be fine; so, they’ll be fine”? I have to prepare for whoever suddenly takes a turn for the worst or whoever presents with a condition I’ve never heard of or seen before. I’ll need to read my textbooks, go to the journals, see what’s been published, study, be ready, and strive for constant improvement to give my patients my best.
The fact that people dare to divorce that same intellectual rigor from efforts aimed at racial healing and racial reconciliation is mind-boggling to me. Given how profound the trauma, the inequities, the cruelty, the inhumanity of it all is, why are you asking for comfort? There’s nothing about where we are today that should make anyone want peace or comfort. We are so far from that place. We need to embrace the discomfort because that’s where we find truth.
NW: I think that you’ve hit upon something that is key to making change. It’s just that I don’t think that white people have any motivation to become uncomfortable in the way that needs to be done. They don’t want their circumstances, their privilege–I mean we, I’m part of this—jeopardized in any way, to be threatened in any way, to be changed in any way. What has to take place for white people to do that work? Does everything have to burn to the ground for it to sink in?
Dr. Walker: Lately, it feels like the answer to your question may be, “Yes.” There’s a powerful video from Kimberly Jones—she’s riffing off of a similarly powerful message from Trevor Noah when he describes how the social contract for this country has been broken. In Kimberly Jones’ video, she’s clearly upset, angry and frustrated. She’s agreeing that the social contract has been broken. One of the things that she says at the end, that’s really haunting, is that we should all be thankful that, for whatever reason, Black people just want equity and equality instead of revenge.
As I mentioned earlier, I hope that white people will understand that we don’t need you to save us. We need you to understand that you need to be saved. You are not living in your full humanity. You are not experiencing full empathy or unconditional love. You are not upholding the social contract of society.
Instead of focusing on fixing the social contract, Black people are asked to share personal stories. So, we tell our story, and share our pain. We continue to excel under circumstances that we weren’t meant to even endure. We try to cajole; we agitate; we protest.
We pause and have joy in the midst of our pain. We celebrate the small victories. We appreciate the people who care enough to say, “I want to help. I want to change.”
That’s why I am not going to despair. I have moments of despair, but I will not give in to despair. I will actively work against being complicit with my oppression. I will be intentional about advocating against complacency.
I want this to be better for the students who come after me. I don’t want them to go through what I went through in my medical school and graduate school experiences. I don’t want people to see them as less-than capable. I don’t want people to be surprised by what they can do. I don’t want opportunities to be withheld from them because people just didn’t think they were really up to doing it.
What prevents me from falling into despair and allows me to remain hopeful is my upbringing. I value how much I am the embodiment of my parents’ hopes and dreams. They worked hard to give me a life that was better than what was available to them. My ancestors, the ones who believed that they would not always be treated as enslaved people, inspire me. Although chattel slavery as we once knew it no longer exists, the oppression of Black people continues in more insidious forms. I will honor the sacrifices of those before me with my determination to stamp out all forms of racism.
It’s scary, but it’s important to speak truth to power. As I get older, I cannot become more tame or timid. Although grateful for people who are willing to listen to my story, I will not provide them with some type of sad, tragic story that makes them think I need them as my savior. I do not want their guilt or their sympathy. I want people to understand that the change this requires must be motivated by what they need to do for themselves. That’s how you make the most positive difference in my life.
So often, people like the idea of being a benefactor or a savior. They’re very comfortable with, “Well, I’m helping make their situation not so bad.” Making an individual situation better does nothing to change the structure of the system that made the situation bad in the first place. It may seem counter-intuitive and people may get upset when they read this…
I don’t want you to save me.
I want you to dismantle the structural racism and the systemic practices and policies that continue to oppress Black and Brown people.
You talk about going upstream—go all the way upstream. Change yourself, change the system–not because I need to be rescued, but because it’s wrong. It’s hard work. It’s painful work. It’s uncomfortable work. It’s thankless work. You probably won’t make it into a history book or a prestigious journal. You may not make more money. People probably won’t throw you a party.
Have courage. Have character. Have conviction.
Do the right thing.
That’s what I need.
NW: I think that everything that you’re saying is important and essential advice for white people. I’m not sure we’re at the point where we’re ready to do the painful, uncomfortable work of changing ourselves and changing the system. But the message has to get out there, it has to be taken seriously, and it has to be taken to heart. If even a few people out of the white population are ready to do it, because they’re hearing the message—finally, it’s better than nothing.
Dr. Walker: As much as it hurts to hear you say it, I appreciate your honesty. You’re right. Most people don’t want to hear this message. They want to hear a story about how someone else treated me so terribly because I am a Black woman. They can then think to themselves, “I feel morally superior because I’m not like that bad person.” This is not a question of morality. You might not like it, but there are “fine people on both sides” [Trump quote after Charlottesville neo-Nazi/white supremacy violence in 2017]. “Fine people” are exactly how we got here today.
My truth is telling you that I don’t have to put my pain on display to make you feel better about who you are. Even when it makes you uncomfortable, you need to show up and do real work. When you do nothing, that guarantees my traumatic and painful experiences will continue. I am suffering from your remarkable ability to convince yourself that, “I’m a good person, and I didn’t do anything to hurt her.”
I already said that it is ingrained in me to not make white people feel uncomfortable. When we get to the point of having honest conversations, Black people have learned that we can’t make white people too uncomfortable. We can’t upset them too much because the retaliation, the consequences and the backlash are real.
So, thank you again for your honesty. I hope you understand my honest too.
NW: Is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven’t covered, yet?
Dr. Walker: [After a long pause] “Maybe I should tell you a story… You know, it’s exhausting to deal with being treated differently than the other doctors. I decided to speak up about the unfair and unequal treatment. I was told, “Oh no, you’re the problem. People think you’re rude. People think you’re condescending.” Besides making sure that I was smiling enough, I felt compelled to police every aspect of my behavior. I walked on eggshells. I tried to make sure that everybody liked me. I double checked and triple checked the work I did for my patients. It’s impossible to be perfect, but I’m terrified to be anything other than perfect. It is so exhausting, and it’s still not enough.
One day, I tried to put it all out in the open. I asked my team to sit down and meet with me. I started by saying, “I don’t understand why you don’t trust me. Have I ever put you in a situation where things were chaotic and out-of-control, where things went badly with a patient?”
“Then what is it, then? Why do you keep pushing back and questioning me?”
[Them] “You’re so intense.”
“Am I more intense than my other colleagues?”
[Them] “No. But you’re so smart.”
“But that should be a good thing, right?”
[Them] “Well, yeah.”
“What is it? What do you want from me? What is the problem? Am I rude?”
“Am I condescending?”
“Do I make myself unapproachable?”
How did I end up here? I don’t know of any of my other colleagues having that conversation. What is it? How am I different from everyone else? I trained at some of the best places in the country. I passed all of my Board exams on the first try–never failed one. I have all the certifications. I have almost 15 years of dedicated experience doing this work. Yet, some people are still trying to put me in my place and remind me that I can’t expect to always succeed.
That’s my experience in academia. When I tell you my stories about what happened to me in high school, it’s to make a point. This doesn’t start when you enter into higher education. It happens on all levels. I have dealt with the quadruple discrimination of being a young, intelligent Black woman attempting to navigate all the other aspects of academia.
Then, before I can get the oxygen mask on myself, I am reaching out to save the students experiencing the same type of mistreatment. I need to affirm that they are experiencing structural gaslighting. With all the mental and emotional labor I expend, it decreases my scholarly productivity. I am not writing, publishing or completing my scientific research. Of course, that opens the door to more questioning and doubting of whether I deserve a place in academia. I watch others receive more protected time for scholarly activities while they ask me to do more of the undervalued labor that jeopardizes my promotion.
NW: When you start your new position, do you have powerful partners who are ready to do the uncomfortable work to make systemic change? [Dr. Valencia Walker was in transition to a new position at a different institution when this interview took place.]
Dr. Walker: I think that’s one of my biggest concerns. I think there are people who want change. However, the political will to push the people who don’t want to change—which we both acknowledge are probably a significant number of people—may not be there. Why would people want to spend all their political capital on something that will get them kicked out of the group of privilege and protection?
You know, we sarcastically joke and say that everyone enjoys Black culture, but nobody wants the Black pain that creates it. People love the Blues, Jazz, Rap, fashion, slang and the swagger. People can consume it from afar without ever experiencing the deeply rooted pain that creates the necessity of all these things. We don’t need more fans of the culture. We need more co-conspirators in this fight against racism.
It is truly difficult to have the character, courage, and conviction to compel change. I know it’s not easy. However, you really need those three qualities so much more than you need my personal story.
Crenshaw K. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43: 1241-1299, 1991.
Evelyn K. In life and death, George Floyd’s plight reflected the burden of being black in America. The Guardian, June 6, 2020.
Benner K. Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer. The New York Times, July 16, 2019.
Wood J. Officer involved in fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor being fired. The Guardian, June 19, 2020.
McGreal C. ‘We will fight back’: how the police killing of a black woman in Texas sparked fear and anger. The Guardian, October 19, 2019.
Lovan D. Impatience grows for cops’ arrests in Breonna Taylor’s death. The Washington Post, June 25, 2020.
Kimberly Jones: The Contract is Broken. YouTube, uploaded June 16, 2020.
Trevor Noah: The Daily Social Distancing Show. YouTube uploaded May 29, 2020.
Blake A. Trump tries to re-write his own history on Charlottesville and ‘both sides’. Washington Post, April 26, 2019.
Crawford-Roberts, Shadravan S, Tsai J et al. George Floyd’s autopsy and the structural gaslighting of America. Shondaland.com, June 23, 2020.
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