By Renique Kersh, assistant dean for academic affairs in the college of applied health sciences at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana
A number of significant health disparities concern black women.
According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationally the percentage of black women 20 years old and over who are obese is as high as 54%. Black women are 70% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women and are 70% less likely to engage in physical activity.
Among the leading causes of death for this population are heart disease, cancer and stroke, all of which are linked to obesity.
The evidence of this health risk among black women in higher education became apparent to me as I sat in the hallway at a recent conference. Among the black women that I witnessed, just about every one was obese. As I heard their professional stories in session after session, I could not help but question why so many of my strong, black female colleagues were carrying this extra weight.
I wondered whether their jobs on campus might be affecting their ability to manage their physical and emotional health.
Scholars report stress
Several scholars such as Mary Howard Hamilton and Lori Patton have found that black women in higher education daily face unique challenges of institutionalized racism and gender discrimination.
These women are overburdened by perceived and real expectations of performance compared to their white and/or male colleagues. They also are burdened by a sense of obligation to extend themselves as mentors and lone representatives in many cases. Many black women’s experiences in higher education administration have left them feeling invisible, marginalized and disempowered.
What I recognized in uncovering this scholarly articulation of black women’s experiences in higher education was just how much this epistemology defines the voice I give to my own experiences as a black female administrator at a predominately white institution.
It highlights the underestimation of how stressors may be manifest physically and emotionally particularly by black women navigating predominantly white institutions.
How do black women cope with stressors that result as they balance work and personal life, while navigating work spaces where they are in the minority?
Often seen first as black and then as female—before being seen as simply qualified—they are fighting for relevance.
Why is it important for institutions to consider this situation? For answers, I began by looking more deeply at my own history and understanding of stress management, which links back to what I learned from the first and most influential black woman in my life: my mother.
Stress: Up close and personal
Although my mother was not in higher education, I began to consider the experiences that she had as a professional and thought critically about how her experiences affected her overall health. She maintained a family of five children, worked as an executive and challenged the status quo every day.
What I learned by witnessing her journey was not only her strength, but the incredible pain and sorrow that she held so deeply inside. I saw her sacrificing herself daily for the sake of others, ultimately developing diabetes, depression and hypertension.
Upon reflecting on my experience witnessing the black women at the conference, I recognized the commonality in their outward expression of strength and could not help but wonder what lay beneath.
As I grew up, my mother was always well groomed and beautiful, much like the women I witnessed. The beauty she had on the outside was unmatched by the beauty that she carried on the inside.
She cared deeply for the wellbeing of everyone around her, from her staff to her family. She managed to care for everyone and everything while rarely voicing her own needs. As her health declined, however, the consequences of her silence and self-sacrifice became more evident.
As an adult with a family of my own, I found myself challenged by managing a stressful work environment and a multitude of personal responsibilities, along with navigating institutional spaces that require me to code-switch in ways that both protect and silence me.
I have found solace in my historical roots of strength and resilience as a primary coping strategy for stressors that come with these roles.
I realize, however, that I could easily succumb to my own self-sacrifice and could find myself among the black women who are obese or who suffer from chronic illness or depression. This knowledge forced me to question whether I must sacrifice myself in order to be successful in my work and home life.
Or does the field of higher education have an organizational advantage that can prove beneficial to ensure the health of all its employees, including black women administrators?
The higher education advantage
Institutions that provide avenues that encourage collective opportunities for black women to discuss issues related to health and wellness may be the catalyst for encouraging healthier lifestyles. They may also provide a social network that will have the potential to decrease the sense of isolation and marginalization among black women.
Cultural understanding of the experiences of black women and other women of color at predominantly white institutions can provide an important foundational framework for considering wellness initiatives that are more salient for underrepresented populations, which provide a more accurate understanding of what induces stress in this population.
Strategies to cope with stress
Black women cope with stress in a variety of ways. Those who respond to stress inappropriately tend to overeat, engage in less physical activity and fall to mental illness and other chronic diseases.
Those who choose a healthier path are likely to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat, and they are more likely to respond in more productive ways.
In many cases, I have found evidence that black women tend to respond to stress in ways that promote resilience. This induces a sense of empowerment and commitment to personal health and success.
Self-care practices—such as following an exercise routine, seeking medical assistance and using effective stress management practices—are important for African American female administrators.
Other strategies include religious practices such as prayer and social support, speaking out against perceived injustices, having a realistic ability to address internalizations of strength, acknowledging the importance of their administrative role and creating a “sense of self” and a willingness to “move on.”
These healthy strategies can shift the paradigm that positively influences how African American female administrators cope with daily stressors.
It is critical that black female administrators use coping strategies that promote self-care and optimal health and wellbeing. Women who pay less attention to their own personal needs are at risk of less optimal health outcomes.
Higher education institutions are uniquely positioned as a microcosm of society and a professional training ground that is seeing a steady increase in the number of black students and black professionals.
Acknowledging the unique experiences of African American female administrators and the challenges they face provides critical insight and may encourage more support at the institutional level. It can provide a critical framework for institutions as they identify culturally relevant health and wellness initiatives.
Higher education benefits overall when staff, faculty and students of all types are healthy.
To reach Renique Kersh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kersh, Renique. (2012, September). IN HER OWN WORDS: Black Female Administrators: Is Stress Killing Us? Women in Higher Education, 20(9), 8-9.