Self-Preservation in the Academy

by Ana Karen Gomez, University of California, Los Angeles

Audre Lorde said it best, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As the child of immigrants and the first person in both my immediate and extended family to pursue a PhD, I value hard work and making sacrifices. My parents learned to work through sweat, past tears, and in spite of pain in order to ensure that our family of four survived in this country. I was taught to prioritize academics from an early age so that I could work with my brain and not with my back, as my parents liked to say; they wanted an easier life for me. Though being an academic might be easier on my hands and knees, the mental and emotional toil of being a Scholar of Color (SOC) in academia can be extremely taxing because racism is embedded in every single one of the U.S.’s institutions, including higher education.

One of the most frustrating things about racism in the 21st century is that it is often covert and goes unnamed, yet its effects are no less detrimental. Racial microaggressions are daily, commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial insults towards People of Color (POC) (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso, 2000). Despite notable advances that have been made since the colonial era, racism continues to be upheld in all of the U.S.’s institutions, including within higher education institutions (Museus, 2015). As a result, SOC are often confronted with a hostile racial campus climate in which they experience microaggressions daily. Chester Pierce (1995) argued that “in and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence” (p. 281).

Though taking care of ourselves may not be the first thing that comes to mind when conceiving of ways to achieve social justice and dismantle racism, we must learn that self-care is in fact a form of resistance, and necessary to our survival when we inhabit hostile racial environments. Many of us experience guilt when we expend time, energy, and resources on ourselves, especially when part of our identity is constructed around serving our communities and supporting our families. Yet taking care of ourselves is not selfish, it is a necessary step in ensuring that we are physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy to care for others and fulfill all the roles and responsibilities we have. Self-care is especially important during graduate school when our time is scarce, our to-do lists seem infinite, and we experience the deleterious effects of racism.

We must allocate time to invest in our well-being, and conceive of this time not as a guilty pleasure, but rather as a political act of self-preservation. Our presence in the academy as underrepresented, marginalized, SOC is political. We are inhabiting institutions that were built on the blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved people, institutions that were not created for us to inhabit. We must take care of ourselves, and of each other, so that our work can create access for SOC and hold higher education institutions accountable to serving these students well.

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Racism and racial equity in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Pierce, C. (1995) Stress analogs of racism and sexism:  Terrorism, torture, and disaster.  In V. Willie, P. P. Reiker, B. M. Kramer, & B. S. Brown (Eds.) Mental health, racism, and sexism (pp. 277-293)Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 69, 60.


Ana Karen Gomez is a doctoral student at UCLA and a research analyst at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI).  As a critical race scholar, Ana’s research is informed by the reality that racism is a permanent and pervasive fixture in U.S. social institutions, including colleges and universities. Her work seeks to challenge master narratives about Students of Color and their communities, with a special focus on Latinx students in STEM, familial capital, mental health, and campus racial climates.

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