Being a woman of color in America means being perpetually agitated, but still expected to be sexy and smiling. If you aren’t, you are angry and have given up on trying to be beautiful. If you speak up too much, you are causing trouble. As a sister raised in hip-hop and entering her 40s, I find myself dealing with the fatigue of being a non-tenure track professor in the academic industrial complex. [But] in doing so, I am teaching young people of all colors, and dismantling some of the ideas that keep them from seeing how economics and race alter public policy and how hip-hop has been a lens for examining a host of issues as they work on grammar, organization [while] learning how to do research.
As their gears are turning, I am managing students who live in one of the most segregated cities in America; students who are so terrified of bad grades as a result of standardized tests and being labeled “stupid” that it paralyzes meaningful dialogue until I can break down the invisible blockades preventing them from speaking; students who are very aware of issues like police brutality, sexism, gentrification, and the indentured servitude to student loans; students who are afraid ICE is coming for them or their relatives in a supposed sanctuary city. And of course, because I am one of the few women of color leading a classroom. I get more young people of color and more women asking me for guidance beyond the classroom, which I am happy to do, but I know it detracts from the time that I spend writing my own books and articles and doing readings at other institutions and conferences. When you try to explain this work as a woman of color, then people pile on advice. Why don’t you have a man if you’re not queer? (Yes, this question has been posed.) Simple conversations have been halted simply because a man has asked me what do I do for a living. I try to keep it brief.
“Where? What do you teach?”
“English at University of Illinois Chicago.”
“You teach college? You have a Ph.D.? You write books?”
“Yeah, I write poetry and essays mostly. I have two books out.”
Usually, there is dead air or the conversation stops, but the more insidious undermining happens when the man talking to you says, “You must be married to your career.” Or “You sound like all you do is work.” I cannot help myself then.
“Well, when women have to pay all the bills and still make less money than men, then I guess I would be working. The last three men I dated made more than me with fewer or no degrees.”
The conversation is usually terminated then. I just keep thinking about Chimamanda Adichie saying a man who is intimidated by her is probably a man that she is not interested in, but the reality of a woman of color who wants to keep her bills paid and stay indoors is often a lot of labor, paid and otherwise. You may have a couple of side hustles. You may cut open the lotion bottles and toothpaste tubes to make them last longer. You may become a coupon master and barter. You may be figuring out what you need to buy before a check bounces, or you have figured out multiple streams of income. In some ways, I’m relieved to see younger women of color taking the parody version of Bree Newsome seriously where the image of her body scaling a flagpole is paired with the imagined quote of “F**k it, I’ll do it then.” Frankly, I think a lot of women are tired of saying that and tired of doing it because of other people’s apathy and expectations. There is a reason that self-care is becoming an increasingly popular term. It is not that young people are more fragile than previous generation or that “they are not like their grandparents” as some of the memes with Civil Rights Movement photos might suggest.
Every slight adds up. Those micro-aggressions. [Like the one about] “the savages in Ferguson” on a co-worker’s page from a previous teaching position that I held. I was horrified, and politely countered that many former students of mine from Chicago were supporting the protests in Chicago. Many of them have gone on to earn degrees and teach themselves. I refreshed the page, only to discover that he deleted my comment and continued with a thinly-veiled racist tirade. We can go further and discuss how he told all my co-workers, and it wasn’t until a white male co-worker (who agreed with me) told me that the Facebook post told everyone that I “unfriended him” without telling them why. The post avoided me until I finished teaching there. So, I am not oblivious to people ignoring me, acting like I got a free affirmative action ride, or acting like I am racist for asserting myself.
Months later, I moved back to Chicago, a city that I love, and a city that loves its men. Two Chicago-based publications reviewed my book. Both publications are edited by women. Of course, the major newspapers are mostly populated by North Siders, who are mostly white. However, I see men get published in these newspapers regularly. This reflects a trend that women writers involved with an organization called VIDA have been addressing with “The Count.” The count for women writers of color still needs to be more conclusive. As I tap my foot and wait for the results, I keep writing. I keep debating doing gigs for less money. I keep encouraging young women of color to work, and I keep monitoring my health. Every slight is a step closer to high blood pressure or anxiety, and I think of Leanita McClain, a Chicago journalist who eventually had hate mail heaped in canvas bags on her desk on a daily basis after writing blistering commentary on race, especially after she wrote a piece called “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate White People.” The pressure grew until this depressed, talented and beautiful writer killed herself in her own living room. Her book, A Foot in Each World, was edited by her husband Clarence Page, who still writes for The Chicago Tribune. McClain’s piece would be right on time for the onslaught of think pieces that go live everyday in the Internet era. Instead, her life serves as a cautionary tale that me living is just as important as the work that some people assume subsumes my capacity for relationships, even when I have yearned for the joys of cuddling—even a child. Besides, if I’m single, I MUST be doing something wrong, right? WRONG. Maybe we should ask why the standards are set so simultaneously high and low for women of color to remain in docile servitude to everyone but themselves.
Every missing dollar adds up in a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy real estate, even if you got that “good university job.” Respectability politics makes it seem like the good teaching job is for suckers once you get the paycheck. It is a position that you do for the love. Yet feeling like it is a punishment in the 21st century, when there is a president who can joke about grabbing women by the crotch, is common. I have heard students and professors alike wonder if getting on the pole as a stripper and going to the gym every day, might have been a better prospect. So, don’t ask me to be mad at sex workers when that is hard work, too. Don’t ask me to turn up my nose at anyone who manages to keep the lights on, sometimes, in spite of feeding several people and supporting people who expect her to do it, even though they can occasionally take care of themselves. It’s also not my job to hand over my ideas as a professor so you can profess them and make money off my intellectual capital. Quit suppressing me as a colleague and thinking I will do some barefoot kitchen and bedroom footwork for you, all of that is another kind of shuffling, and I see other young women of color trying to walk upright with me into the next decade of the 21st century. —Tara Betts