Living Beyond Survival

11 Tips for Women of Color in Academia

February 7, 2016

Survival has not always been my primary mode of being. A middle-class upbringing, loving parents and an Ivy League degree made me believe that I could succeed at anything. As an American citizen, I do not fear deportation. I am not poor. I am a single person without a family to feed. As a cisgender woman in a long-term relationship with a cisgender man, I enjoy straight and cis privileges. I have lived a life of strong and able-bodied health.

That said, I didn’t relate to the concept of survival before graduate school. Since I began my doctoral program, I’ve felt like I’ve been fighting for my life. Intersections of my identity have cast me as an outsider: I’m both a child of Thai and Filipino immigrants and a woman in academia. Like others who study race, class, gender, citizenship and sexuality, I am exhausted from explaining to skeptical, often privileged students and professors that racism and heteropatriarchy are real. Some students and colleagues roll their eyes, giggle and walk out of the room when we call out whiteness, white privilege and racism.

When women of color center the stories of oppressed communities in our work, white colleagues and professors give backhanded compliments, calling our work “fun.” They accuse us of not “doing theory” even though a more critical analysis would show that we are creating theory rooted in these lived experiences. As they simultaneously dismiss us as being too biased to understand racism, they praise the work of anti-racist whites who teach the same concepts we do. Such constant psychic racial violence reminds me that academia was not created for us. After the first year of my doctoral program, I described my experience to a friend who works with trafficking survivors. She responded, “You sound like a survivor of trauma.”

Since then, I have understood her words to be more than a figure of speech. Halfway through my second year, I first experienced signs that something wasn’t right in my body. I had trouble walking, and months later, it hurt to take the stairs. A week before my third year, I woke up with stiffness in my right hand and could not clap at a conference. The pain spread to several other joints in my body, and soon I was wincing while getting out of bed.

I learned that I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic progressive disease in which the immune system shifts into overdrive, attacking its own joint tissue. After wearing down joint tissue, RA erodes the bones, leading to permanent deformity in as little as two years. Left untreated, inflammation can lead to complications in organs such as the heart and lungs. When I was first diagnosed a year ago, my anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) count, a marker of RA, was over 50 times the normal count.

The exact cause of RA remains unknown. Women are three times more likely than men to have RA, suggesting a possible gendered link between environmental stressors and the disease. I believe that constant stress made me a strong candidate for RA. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart’s work on trauma in Native American communities has shown that hypervigilance increases production of adrenaline and cortisol. Both are survival hormones related to the fight, flight or freeze response. Continuous production of these hormones can lead to major illness. Women of color in academia know we are likely to face one or more microaggressions a day. Derald Wing Sue and others define microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Our knowledge leads us to adopt a hypervigilant awareness to protect us from psychological harm. I believe I’d become so used to protecting myself in academia that my immune system, through the overproduction of survival hormones, literally locked into high gear.

The 2013 anthology Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs and Yolanda Flores Niemann, documents the traumas of other women of color in academia, showing that my story is not rare. Gloria Anzaldúa died while writing her dissertation. Audre Lorde and June Jordan were refused medical leave from their universities while battling cancer, which ultimately took both of their lives. On a personal level, I know more than one queer student or professor of color who has attempted suicide. They cite hostility, isolation and alienation in academia as reasons for their distress. Women and queer people of color are particularly damaged physically and mentally, and we are forced to find ways to heal on our own as our institutions do not prioritize our well-being.

Healing is neither easy nor affordable. Every month, I take home about $1,700 as a teaching assistant. After paying for my rent, gas, cell phone, physical therapy, acupuncture, doctor’s appointments, blood work, X-rays and massage therapy, I have less than $100 each month for food. Animal products and foods grown with pesticides worsen the symptoms of my RA. To preserve my health, I’ve adopted a plant-based diet. Organic fruits and vegetables cost at least $200 a month. This doesn’t include purchasing toilet paper, toothpaste or a cup of tea. Do the math: I am paid less than what I need to live. Like others, I have had to borrow money to survive.

For a year, I resisted taking pharmaceuticals for my RA because of dangerous side effects like liver damage and increased risk of lymphoma. However, I recently realized that solely holistic methods of treatment are not sustainable on my income. I have had to decrease my visits to physical therapy because I do not have enough money for co-pays. Less physical therapy means a greater possibility of my elbows “freezing” permanently. I can now see how people literally become disabled if they cannot afford treatment. Furthermore, I have learned firsthand how much cheaper it is for people with health insurance to take toxic drugs rather than purchase healthy food, exercise and receive noninvasive treatment.

Doctoral students’ sacrifices no longer pave the way for a secure future. In the past 38 years, the percentage of professors holding tenure-track positions has dropped to half at 16.7 percent. Yet the number of part-time professors, most of whom remain uninsured without job security, has increased by over 300 percent. As universities admit more students, educators take on greater workloads, requiring more time but at the same pay rate. According to an Urban Institute analysis cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of people with doctorates receiving food stamps and other forms of welfare more than tripled between 2007 and 2010 to 33,655. Our students are also suffering. For example, the University of California just approved a 27 percent tuition increase for students over the next five years. Yet two months earlier, they raised the chancellors’ salaries by 20 percent. It is clear that administrators prioritize their livelihood over those of students, teaching assistants and professors.

This has been my experience as a woman of color pursuing her doctorate and living with a chronic illness. The following is a list of strategies I have learned and practiced with my women of color sisters in graduate school. These women and our efforts to heal together sustain, strengthen and enable me to live beyond survival.

1.     Love and accept love from other women of color. Women professors of color earn half of what their white male colleagues make. Even when compared to their white female counterparts, women of color make only 70 percent. Women of color who teach about racism are criticized for bias and incompetence. It is common for us to internalize these messages of inferiority. When we make the effort to openly love one another, we take part in a revolution that resists the competitiveness and isolation of academia and fights the incorrect perceptions of others.

2.     Notice those who show solidarity with you and reciprocate when they need you. Chandra Mohanty once said, “We need to practice active disloyalty to the institution while practicing active loyalty to each other.” Practicing loyalty in an institution that demands competition is difficult for many student activists. Identify true allies and support them.

3.     Build healing spaces and spend time there. Find a calm place to sit with allies each week. Check in and share your highs and lows. Sit in silence together and meditate for 20 minutes. Create closed social media groups with those who demonstrate solidarity with you and share resources for healing. Keep these spaces safe by being gentle and loving.

4.     Fight for funding for healing spaces. Too often, women of color must spend their own money to create healing spaces in response to institutional violence. Institutions use our numbers to boast diversity, but neither acknowledge the wounds they cause nor offer resources for healing. Identify allies at your institution who have access to funds and who understand the needs of women and queer people of color. Challenge them to provide funding for these spaces.

5.     Pray for those you love, and ask them to pray for you. Dr. Brave Heart explains that in the Lakota tradition, people used prayer exchange for healing. Through years of colonization, this tradition has dwindled. As women of color, we often give and rarely receive. When we offer and receive prayers for each other’s well-being, we contradict the violence and feed our spirits.

6.     Stay connected to your nonacademic community. Though friends and family outside of academia may not always understand our struggles, they remind us of why we do the work we do. Ask them to support you and name specific ways they can show care. If you have access, leverage academic resources your community might need and share them.

7.     Write about what angers you and share it. I once took a class on queer of color scholarship. Each week students facilitated discussion. A queer classmate of color and I cofacilitated a book on women of color feminism. In line with the book’s content, we asked the class to center women of color voices during class discussion. Prior to this week, white male students had consistently monopolized dialogue. Angered by being asked to listen rather than speak, a white male classmate walked out of class while another smirked throughout our facilitation. Our professor and other classmates — of all races — praised our pedagogy. That night our professor, a woman of color, received several complaints from white classmates who claimed they had been silenced. In response, she individually reached out to all of the white students, apologizing and checking in on their feelings after class.

Throughout my years as a graduate student, I have felt silenced by white people countless times — ironically, even in this class on queer of color scholarship. I have never received an email from a professor checking in on how I’ve coped with feeling silenced, so I was angry that she was catering to these students’ entitlement without ever addressing the alienation felt by the women students of color in our class. My final paper for the class directly addressed this incident, and I later received a nationally recognized award for it. Even more rewarding was the affirmation I received from women and queer people of color who expressed validation through reading my work. When we write about and share our stories, we nourish others who in turn nourish us.

8.     Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Cry with others you trust and let them cry with you. RA has no cure, only treatment that slows its progression. If I don’t have enough to eat or eat the wrong foods, I risk not being able to walk the next day. Food and sleep are my medicine, and I now decline late-night meetings and anything that requires much standing. Studies show that the body’s natural process of repair and restoration takes place between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Meditation, breathing exercises and tears are known natural painkillers. Trust the body to heal itself.

9.     Find mentors who practice the ethics you preach. Seek professors who walk the social justice talk through critical scholarship, compassion and ethics. These mentors are rare and precious. If they are women of color, they are likely underpaid, so be mindful of their time.

10.  Vocalize your needs and help others fulfill theirs. For many immigrants and people of color, to ask for help is to invite judgment as being lazy or seeking handouts. Still, many of us recognize that we must work together to fulfill our needs because the system impedes us from being able to do it alone. When I could not afford regular yoga classes, I made an arrangement with a studio owner to volunteer in exchange for free classes. After years of donating to others through Santa Barbara Freecycle, a Listserv through which community members post things they need and wish to give away, I recently received a folding shopping cart. Now I do not have to carry heavy bags at the farmer’s market, which inflames my elbows. Through vocalizing our needs and helping one another, we are able to survive.

11.  Decide what activities are life-giving, and make them a priority. A woman of color mentor once told me to choose battles with tangible outcomes. As I sit here with my aching fingers, elbows and ankles, I realize she is right. When my body throbs and wakes me up in the middle of the night, all I can think about is that this is how it feels to be hit by a truck. One of my biggest fears is losing the ability to pick up my own baby one day. Living with RA has taught me the necessity of self-care. I view each moment of self-care as an act of decolonization. Healing oneself defies academia’s neoliberalism, which teaches us our bodies are expendable. By resurrecting indigenous methods of healing together, we reject colonization’s genocide of our traditional ways. As Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

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Karen Hanna


Karen Hanna is a Filipina-Thai-Chinese American doctoral candidate in the department of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  A former New York City public school teacher, GED instructor and community organizer, Karen is fiercely dedicated to building trans- and queer-inclusive healing spaces for women of color.