Women of color are actively building and running organizations that serve as a safe haven for members of their community at Yale School of Medicine (YSM) and elsewhere. And while they appreciate the recognition and praise they receive for providing outlets to community members who are dealing with the added stress of being underrepresented, including racism and microaggressions, they also have a message: they are tired.
The three Black women cofounders of the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association (YBPA) — Brionna Davis-Reyes, PhD, a postdoc in clinical neuroimaging; Aileen Fernandez, PhD, a postdoc in medical oncology; and Chrystal Starbird, PhD, a postdoc in pharmacology — recently shared their thoughts about the supportive role they and other Black women take on and how it’s beginning to take a toll.
The organization, supported by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at YSM, has made itself a place of comfort and community for underrepresented postdocs and allies. They host speakers on imposter syndrome and virtual cooking classes and Beyonce yoga sessions. They run an Emerging Scholars program that highlights leading postdocs of color, and a Summer Outreach Symposium for high school students. The events are well attended, the community is thriving, and the need never ends.
“There’s an extra burden of protecting the population we represent,” says Starbird, who recently won a Postdoctoral Career Transition Award from the National Institutes of Health. “Black women are struggling.”
Unequal Distribution of Stress
Their concerns over increased levels of stress and burnout amongst Black women are supported by several studies in the scientific literature. One study from 2010 found by measuring telomeres — compounds at the end of chromosomes that protect them from damage — that Black women were aging prematurely due in part to persistent stress and overexposure to stress hormones. As a result, between the ages of 49 and 55, Black women were biologically 7.5 years “older” than white women, the study found. Health disparities between Black and white Americans have grown worse since the 1990s, particularly for Black women, with rates of hypertension and chronic illness increasing. And a new study by Yale researchers in JAMA Psychiatry offered further confirmation of the way the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted families from racial and ethnic minoritized backgrounds. The study found that children from minoritized backgrounds had increased sleep disturbances and concerns about racism that impacted their mental health.
These increased stress levels are reaching their peak during a time when there is a national shortage of therapy appointments, an issue of great concern to YBPA leadership. “We’re all dealing with the pandemic,” says Starbird. “But it means something different, especially for Black women. The Black population has experienced the most death. On top of dealing with child care issues and work concerns, a larger proportion of us have lost people. We have people who have been sick. Who aren’t getting the healthcare and information they need.”
Lifting the Burden from Black Women
The three founders mentioned the recent suicide of Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, a prominent Black woman who worked as a lawyer and TV correspondent, as well as the alarming rise of suicides among Black teen girls.
“Black women are strong, and they are willing to put in the effort to support one another,” says Davis-Reyes,” but they are reaching dangerous levels of burnout and exhaustion.”
“It isn’t just the physical time but the emotional toll,” says Fernandez of their behind-the-scenes work on YBPA. “Now we are trying to empower our members and get people who have fresh ideas and a little more energy to take on some of the programming and help them along the way.”
Davis-Reyes agrees. “Looking at Aileen and Chrystal, they are walking examples of amazing Black women. But they are also tired and vulnerable. We need to get poured back into. The end goal of YBPA is really meaningful action. Not just words. People stepping up to the plate and leading those charges with the same precision, care, and excellence that Black women show.”
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