Wellness

Another hill to climb

Kayunta Johnson–Winters
By Kayunta Johnson–Winters
Jan. 12, 2023

I was recently honored for an extensive five-year leadership commitment to my university that extended through the pandemic. During the ceremony, I looked at the award and noticed not only that my name was misspelled but also that I had received credit for only two of the five years of service.

I privately commented to a colleague that my name was misspelled, and their response was “Oh, just be thankful.”

In that moment, I felt belittled and that my contributions were diminished. My colleague may have been well-intentioned, but that comment still caused harm, and I no longer felt that my interactions with them were in a safe space.

It might have been less of a blow if the group presenting the award hadn’t worked so closely under my leadership, which means they should have known how to spell my name. Names carry monumental weight; spelling and pronouncing them correctly are signs of respect.

Why we need self-care

Being a faculty member at a university can be fulfilling, but knowing the impact we have on our students, research communities and institutions often weighs heavily on our shoulders. We must balance our personal and professional responsibilities under the stress of managing expectations in a competitive work environment.

This stress is compounded for those of us who are from historically marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds.

One source of stress can be the way others respond to our names. People of color are often discriminated against in the hiring process if their names are perceived as too ethnic. Author Minda Harts writes in the book “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table” that she shortened her name due to workplace bias, and the need to do so caused her emotional harm. Names are important in many communities and are worthy of respect.

And it’s not just names. Systemic practices, such as a lack of mentoring, support and understanding of the impact of intersectionality, disproportionately affect us. Our multiple identities play a critical role in our research, teaching and service work. Furthermore, we are exposed to macro- and microaggressions that leave us mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Macroaggressions are, as the name implies, often easy to recognize, but microaggressions are subtle acts of exclusionary behavior in the form of everyday insults, demeaning messages and indignities; women and people from historically marginalized backgrounds are often on the receiving end of these messages. Our colleagues make assumptions about our knowledge and abilities, even though our accomplishments, titles, work experience and credentials are similar to theirs. I have received unsolicited advice about my career path from people who know little about me or my circumstances.

These comments can be mean-spirited or well-meaning. They also can be exhausting and debilitating, leaving us feeling isolated, especially when we are blindsided by someone we perceived as a well-meaning ally.

Such comments and actions affect the mental health of the people on the receiving end. Microaggressions can create anxiety and self-doubt, leading to depression and hypertension. Harts, who also authored the book “Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace,” writes of how difficult it is for people of color to show up in the workplace as their authentic selves. Therefore, self-care is necessary, and we need to make it a priority.

Self-care can take many forms, as you’ll see from my list below. I want to focus on two resources that I’ve found especially helpful.

Community

Many wonderful groups exist within academia and science; however, not all include people who share our particular experiences. I found my community in the Society of STEM Women of Color, or SSWOC, a diverse group of people who are committed to an intersectional approach for empowering women of color in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Prior to attending the SSWOC’s annual conferences, I felt confused, isolated and alone. Because microaggressions can be so subtle, it was difficult to understand what was in my head and the intent of other’s words and actions. The SSWOC introduced me to women of color who were telling my story but with different faces. In this group, I found strength, clarity, training, sisterhood among diverse women, my voice, my place and empowerment.

In reference to self-care, this is the single most important conference of the year for me. I am fortunate that my college has sponsored my participation. For faculty of color from assistant professors to administrators, I cannot stress the value of this conference enough.

Counseling

I have been helped and encouraged by reading Harts’ books, specifically on the subject of seeking counseling.

Historically, many Black and brown communities stigmatize those who seek mental health help. Please know that it is a strength and not a weakness to recognize when you need to speak to a professional. You are not weak or abnormal. Whatever the circumstances, it’s OK to seek help.

In “Right Within,” Harts writes about her journey as she sought counseling; she says it is a private decision that you are not obligated to discuss with anyone.

When I attended the SSWOC conference a couple of years ago, we were given a homework assignment to determine the self-care we would do. I knew I wanted to discuss my issues in a safe space without constantly relying on friends and colleagues. However, it was difficult to find a counselor who would check all my boxes. I wanted an African American woman who had a Ph.D. and understood academia. That significantly reduced my pool. Therefore, it took time to find her, but I did — and she was in my health care network.

Allyship

If academic institutions are truly invested in diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, they must create places where women and people from historically marginalized backgrounds feel they belong and spaces where it is safe for them to work.

If you are a faculty member who wants to be an ally, consider this: When you see a colleague being bullied or subjected to microaggressive behavior, do not stand by and do nothing, especially if you are in a position of authority. How you react will depend on the situation. You can address the bad behavior by calling it out, counteracting it with reason and constructive solutions, or adding validity to the argument on behalf the person who is the target of the behavior.

In situations where injustices against any group are occurring, do not allow whoever is on the receiving end to stand alone. Provide public allyship. Don’t send private emails of support — if you don’t have the courage to say it in the public moment, do not say it in private.

Self-care is not the solution to these deep-rooted problems. It is a tool we can use to survive. Should you choose self-care, especially in the form of counseling, understand that the work is difficult and, as Harts writes, the journey is continuous. You did not arrive at your current status overnight. It will take time, effort, self-reflection, truth and vulnerability to undo the damage. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself.

Guidelines

A person’s response to injurious behavior can vary. Someone with thick skin may not appear to respond at all, while someone attuned to their feelings may be more sensitive. We are all human and have some type of emotional response to how we are treated whether we admit it or not.

There is no right or wrong way to feel about your experiences. Simply recognize how you feel and try to assess why you are feeling this way and then determine your response. The following tools can be useful, and I invite you to consider using them to practice self-care as you navigate academia:

  • Seek counseling. If you think individual counseling will be too expensive, call your insurance company to find someone who is in your network. Then determine your requirements. If counseling is not an option, a life coach (available through an online search) can help you implement a daily routine and action plan.
  • Keep a journal. Journaling can reduce depression and anxiety while allowing you to express your emotions with clarity. It also can help you process your experiences. You can just pull out a sheet of blank paper (or a Word doc) and start writing. Or, if you want more structure, try a journal created by a life coach.
  • Do not normalize injurious behavior. Don’t make excuses for people who cause harm or engage in microaggressions. Do not positively reinforce their behavior. If possible, turn the situation into a teachable moment. Decide if you should respond. Take time to process what has happened, along with your thoughts and feelings, before responding. Consider your vulnerability. Harts suggests asking yourself three questions to protect yourself as you proceed: (1) Does it need to be said? (2) Does it need to be said now? (3) Does it need to be said by you?
  • Say no. Learn to refuse requests for extra service, especially at the assistant and associate professor level on the tenure and promotion track. Ask yourself how this extra duty will affect your career and ability to be promoted. If service is not helping, then focus on your research and teaching.
  • Don’t become comfortable being unhappy. When you’re constantly bombarded with stress, it is easy for feelings of unhappiness to become your norm. Recognize your triggers. Take a moment to deal with stress in the moment so you can move on. Do not allow negative scenarios to play over in your head. Have professionals help you work through situations. Do not become a high-functioning and yet unhappy person.
  • Don’t get comfortable in toxic environments. Find a support system outside your department and institution to help you work through traumatic experiences. Don’t simply be with people who agree with you; seek out those who hold you to the truth and to finding solutions. And do the same for them. Be accountable for your growth and healing.
  • If a safe space doesn’t exist, create it in your scientific community or academic institution. It does not need to be formal. In a safe space, you should be able to show up as your authentic self and express your experiences without fear of retaliation or being judged, or of anyone displaying microaggressive behavior.
  • Take care of yourself. Exercise is the most underrated and underutilized antidepressant. It is also free. Create a friends circle outside of academia and hold one another accountable with a workout routine and healthy eating.
  • Find great resources. Reading books; attending conferences; and participating in workshops and academies on leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion can help you address some of these issues while providing clarity on who you are as an academic and within your local environment. Formal training also can provide knowledge and insight about how to teach and mentor while developing your leadership qualities.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “Right Within” by Minda Harts is an excellent read full of suggestions for dealing with emotional trauma in the workplace. It added insight and clarity to my experiences and empowered me by providing information to address negative emotions and experiences. It is available through Audible.    
  • “The Memo,” also by Harts, teaches women of color how to take charge of their career development while becoming their own sponsors at work and in their careers.
  • The Society of STEM Women of Color is committed to an intersectional approach toward empowering women of color in the STEM fields.
  • Podcasts can be relatable, supportive and empowering both mentally and emotionally. Harts lists a lot of them in “The Memo” and has one of her own called “Secure the seat.”
  • Justina Ingram–Jennings is an expert life coach on anxiety and depression and has a structured journal you can use.

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Kayunta Johnson–Winters
Kayunta Johnson–Winters

Kayunta Johnson–Winters is a tenured associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas–Arlington. She is also a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.

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