BIPOC faculty shoulder a heavier-than-usual burden of emotional labor and identity work even during non-pandemic times. COVID-19 has only further compounded their workload. Yet this additional, mostly invisible labor that BIPOC faculty perform regularly, and more so now, is vital to the success of many students and the institutions they attend. Because of the tremendous value this labor provides, colleges and universities can, and should, acknowledge this challenging yet meaningful work in a number of ways.
Why This Emotional Labor Matters
Let’s begin first by looking at why this kind of emotional labor matters. First, the college years are a time when students are undergoing the important process of identity formation, particularly as they transition into a new community and culture, often unlike the ones they come from. As a general rule, students with a more developed sense of identity -- a greater clarity about the values, issues and goals that matter to them -- have better mental health and increased well-being.
For BIPOC students, the formation of secure, healthy racial and ethnic identities is an important part of this process, and college presents an opportunity for them to further develop, deepen and consolidate those identities. Moreover, this process is often aided by interactions with BIPOC faculty, whom many BIPOC students seek out regardless of their assigned advisers. In addition to benefiting these students’ well-being, meaningful interactions with BIPOC faculty, and the identity formation that occurs through them, are associated with better academic performance and higher rates of retention, graduation and enrollment in graduate programs for all students. Such outcomes benefit not just the students but also the institutions they attend, since retention rates affect the financial viability of colleges and universities.
While emotional labor is an aspect of college-level teaching that many faculty members, regardless of race or ethnicity, often have to perform (especially now), BIPOC faculty consistently find themselves bearing a disproportionate burden -- both in terms of classroom teaching and faculty-student interactions outside classes. This is often due to the amount of emotional labor that BIPOC students have to perform, as well, especially in historically white institutions. They face an inordinate degree of physical and psychological risks this year due both to the pandemic and the steady stream of racially traumatic images in the media of violence, particularly against Black and Asian communities. Students across college campuses have reported heightened feelings of anger, anxiety, depression and stress, as well as an urgent call to activism. BIPOC faculty, in particular, are faced with the additional expectations to perform emotional labor as it is aligned with traditional gender norms characteristic of race and gender intersections and role expectations for caretaking.
Imagine having to perform extra emotional labor due to the effects of the pandemic on your students’ lives while also navigating the inherent challenges of confronting your own issues of race, gender and class identity within the dynamics of historically white institutions, and you can perhaps begin to empathize with BIPOC and/or women faculty. Faculty members, like their students, are also grappling with the same challenges of managing the teaching, advising, scholarship and service workloads typical of academic life, with women academics facing the “maternal wall” blocking their productivity in significant ways.
Making the Invisible Work More Visible
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the array of factors that lead BIPOC faculty to perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labor are complex and intertwined, as are the reasons that BIPOC students require it. The pandemic has laid bare the syndemics of racism, disease, sexism, economic indifference and a general disregard for our humanity that is deeply ingrained in our society. Unfortunately, BIPOC faculty may not soon find themselves relieved of this labor as our college/university communities address the deep-seated equity and care challenges that pervade our society. Since we’ve not yet identified the vaccine to address the complexity of our social and cultural ills and their impact on students, the following recommendations provide some direction for easing the burden on the faculty most likely to support students.
- Institutions should begin by acknowledging that BIPOC faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labor and that this general tendency has been exacerbated by the pandemic (notwithstanding the fact that the pandemic may be forcing faculty members across the board, regardless of race and gender, to be more emotionally available to students more of the time). This is a good place to start, because at present, we often fail to acknowledge that BIPOC professors do in fact perform more emotional labor, generally. Speaking from both experience and observation, when students seek out faculty members who identify as BIPOC and/or women, the faculty member responds because they can relate. We were once students of color on college campuses attempting to make sense of the world, and we have some wisdom to guide students on that path. Whether or not our labor is acknowledged, we will likely continue. And while verbal acknowledgment is not sufficient on its own, it can at least begin to alleviate the taken-for-granted nature of this work that BIPOC faculty members may do to support their students’ persistence in higher education.
- Institutions should work with faculty to make their emotional labor visible and remunerate it through a mutually agreed system of measurement, documentation and compensation. Among the things that could be documented include the number of students faculty are mentoring or advising who are not their official advisees. Also included should be the amount of time faculty are spending interacting with these students through email, phone, Zoom or in-person interactions -- all of which would provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture of their contributions to the well-being and ultimately retention of students made vulnerable by environmental factors. These metrics could be incorporated into evaluations by college deans and/or during midcareer reviews and be among one of the many measures used to determine promotion and tenure, on par with teaching, scholarship and service to the institution.
- Colleges and universities should consider providing a course release to BIPOC faculty who carry a high emotional labor load in their work with students, again when their advising is beyond the allotment of the traditional contractual obligation. Such an approach communicates the value of critical relational work that directly supports student retention and graduation rates and is one step toward making real the social justice and racial equity values declared in institutional commitments and statements. Clearly, for the reasons discussed, the extra labor that BIPOC faculty and women faculty perform serves important functions for colleges and universities. Relieving these faculty of some of their teaching responsibilities is one way to compensate them while making it more feasible for them to continue doing important work, including their own scholarship, that benefits students and institutions in multiple ways.
Colleges and universities, along with industry leaders and corporations, have acknowledged the importance of racial justice and equity efforts following the murder of George Floyd Jr. just a year ago. In the statements and social media posts signaling their virtue in the immediate aftermath, they were quite vocal about their commitments. But as we endeavor to move from statements to the actual enactment of racial justice and equity in higher education, we must identify and implement material and moral support mechanisms to address the disproportionate emotional labor burden carried by BIPOC and women faculty grappling within an unjust society.