Black Fatigue: When Black Teachers Leave Independent Schools
August 10, 2021
The summer of 2020 was a tipping point for independent schools to reckon with the racism of their past and the anti-Blackness that continues today. Even after a year in which school leaders hosted listening sessions to better understand the experiences of Black teachers and students and committed to anti-racism programming, Black teachers have continued to leave their schools. I have termed this phenomenon a Blaxodus or Black Exodus, a visible departure of Black faculty within independent schools, based on research data beginning in 2019 from Columbia University on faculty recruitment and retention and anecdotes I’ve compiled from Black teachers across the country. After the 2020–2021 school year, roughly 50% of the Black teachers who participated in the research study have opted to switch to other independent or public schools, or have chosen to leave the profession altogether for new opportunities in the private sector.
There are many reasons why Black teachers have decided to leave—discrimination, misogynoir, being passed over for leadership, lack of support, and the experience of daily microaggressions. However, the most palpable reason for their departure is “Black Fatigue.” It’s a term that author Mary-Frances Winter explores in her book of the same name, which she defines as the intergenerational impact that systemic racism has on the physical and psychological health of Black people. In the context of independent schools, I have defined Black Fatigue as the exhaustion that comes from the tension between showing up authentically and adjusting to make white people feel more comfortable. Black Fatigue is the additional emotional weight that accompanies merely existing in a predominantly white space, where members of the dominant culture often wittingly or unwittingly require Black colleagues to prove they belong. And I believe the term is especially applicable to the experiences of Black people in independent schools.
Through the past year, I have spoken with Black teachers about feeling the burden of representing our race and having to prove our worth when we are often seen as a “diversity hire.” This constant negotiation leaves Black teachers exhausted and feeling like there are two choices: stay and endure discrimination or leave the institution altogether. As we prepare to begin a new school year, now is a critical time for school leaders to listen to Black colleagues and intentionally recognize, support, and celebrate those who have disproportionately borne the traumas of the past year.
Black Fatigue in Independent Schools
Over the years, Black teachers have been expected to carry the pain of injustices while also being the ones to help solve the injustices. This was especially resonant after the murder of George Floyd when schools relied heavily on their Black faculty and Black diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners to facilitate conversations among faculty and students, as well as serve as a support for the Black alumni who created the [email protected] Instagram accounts, in which they reflected on the racism they endured in school.
Also, last summer, many Black teachers shared their racialized experiences on the Black Teachers at Independent Schools Instagram account. Anthony Gaskins, a Black teacher who left a Los Angeles area school for another independent school, offered in a research interview in May: “Black fatigue is being exhausted by reassuring white people that I am not a threat and that I am qualified to do my job. As a Black male, I feel the pressure to disarm white people I work with by being approachable. It is a survival tactic. Not being approachable has consequences, where you become a target within these predominantly white institutions. The fatigue comes from feeling like I have to constantly prove that I can belong in a place that wasn’t meant for me.”
Black teachers continued posting on social media via [email protected] expressing frustration with feeling like they’re being used for marketing brochures as a symbol of achievement for their schools and as a cover for institutional racism. A Black department chair shared in a research interview in February of 2021 how she was told that she had to attend admission open house events, without pay. She believed this was to suggest to prospective families that there were more Black teachers at the school than there were. All the while, she felt that as a Black teacher, she was merely being tolerated, not accepted, celebrated, or affirmed for what she brought to the school.
A Black woman who recently left her administrative role for public school commented in a research focus group for Black teachers, “There are so many expectations that we have to manage that have nothing to do with our abilities or job performance but everything to do with what we have to endure just to keep our job.”
What Schools Can Do
School leaders need to think critically about how institutional racism affects Black teachers and their ability to thrive at independent schools. Schools need to begin to build trust with their Black teachers by valuing what they bring to the school community. They can begin to do this by supporting and advocating for the professional growth of their Black faculty, as well as by offering mental health resources to address the racial trauma they experience. This includes investing in professional growth that extends beyond attending a conference to creating avenues for leadership for Black faculty, and ensuring that no additional responsibilities are given to Black faculty without their permission or without equitably compensating for their time. More importantly, school leaders must actively listen and believe Black teachers when they share that they are experiencing a hostile environment. Oftentimes, when Black teachers do express their racialized experiences, it is met with disbelief or inaction from school leaders who seemingly don’t want to risk their social capital to support and protect the few Black faculty at their schools.
As a diversity practitioner, consultant, and independent school trustee, one of the things I encourage schools to do is support affinity group space for Black faculty to gather and connect with each other on or off campus, across divisions and campuses, and informally or more formally. There is value for Black faculty to have the opportunity to gather in a space that centers on addressing their needs. To combat Black fatigue, for example, I have created “First Fridays,” a space for Black faculty at schools to decompress and come together and be in community with each other. Every month, I host these meetings as an opportunity to build trust and process current events and their implications within independent schools.
We know that race is always in the room, but a school’s response to its racism will decide how it lives and breathes within the school community. Black teachers are sick and tired of being sick and tired. If independent schools do not address the implications of Black Fatigue, the Blaxodus will be a stark reality now and into the future.
Ralinda Watts is a DEIJ consultant, author, speaker, and practitioner. She is the high school division director at The Waverly School (CA) as well as the founder of the Los Angeles Diversity Directors’ Consortium.