From Microaggressions to Racial Battle Fatigue: How a University Administrator’s Suicide Highlights the Unique Mental Health Challenges Black Women Face at Work

  • Research has consistently shown that Black women face unique workplace challenges, ranging from microaggressions to systemic discrimination. These challenges, often endured in silence, can create a toxic environment that directly impacts their mental health.
  • The recent suicide of a Lincoln University administrator highlights these issues and has the potential to grow into a “me too” moment of its own.

Throughout her academic career, Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey examined what it’s like to be a Black woman in academia. Her doctoral dissertation studied the immense challenges it appears she faced in her own career — the ones that led to severe depression and anxiety during her time as vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University of Missouri, and a request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Ultimately, “Dr. Bonnie,” as she was affectionately known around Lincoln University’s campus, never took the leave she requested. Instead, she ended her life, just five days after she was fired for alleged insubordination.

Academic research consistently shows that Black women face a unique and wide ranging set of workplace challenges, including subtle microaggressions, overt harassment and discrimination. In addition, Black women are four times more likely than white women to report workplace sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – despite the fact that Black women face greater barriers to reporting.

Other systemic forms of racial discrimination add to the unlevel playing field. For example, managers often pass over Black women for promotions, pay them less than their white or male counterparts, criticize them more frequently during performance reviews, and assign them more work than their peers for the same or less pay.

When left unchecked, these racially biased practices can create a toxic and hostile work culture that directly harms Black women’s mental health.

One of Outten & Golden’s clients is Dr. Vernee Butterfield, who focused on cultural competence while earning her PhD from Texas A&M University. Dr. Butterfield has spent her career helping employers diversify their workforces and ensure all voices are heard, and she says Dr. Candida-Bailey’s experience is not uncommon.

“Black women experience work in a very different way than Black men,” Dr. Butterfield said. “Black men are often lauded because they’re rare. Black women, we usually can’t make a mistake. If we do, we’re vilified in a very different way.”

Dr. Butterfield pointed to Dr. Candia-Bailey’s story. In a final email to the university on the day of her death, Dr. Candia-Bailey detailed a hostile work environment in which superiors harassed and bullied her and ignored her requests for workplace accommodations to help address her anxiety and depression.

“She tried to report it, but people weren’t listening,” Dr. Butterfield said. 

Dr. Butterfield said people who hear Dr. Candia-Bailey’s story will try to use her mental state to justify why she couldn’t handle her job. But given her broad experience with this subject, Dr. Butterfield said that excuse undermines the abuse Dr. Candia-Bailey was dealing with, overlooks the toll that ignoring mental health concerns can take on Black women, and, critically, improperly shifts the focus to the victim’s mental health as opposed to examining the root cause – systemic and unaddressed racism. 

The tragedy of Dr. Candia-Bailey’s death has thrown a spotlight on the impossible dilemma Black women often face in the workplace. If they stay silent, the abuse continues. But if they speak up, they may face retaliation from coworkers and bosses and could even lose their jobs.

In the most extreme cases, this dilemma can have fatal consequences.

‘Racial Battle Fatigue’ As a Stress Response to Ongoing Workplace Harassment

Although no one can fully understand her thinking, Dr. Candia-Bailey was likely impacted by a form of racial battle fatigue – a phrase coined by University of Utah professor William A. Smith. It describes the burnout that people of color experience from consistent exposure to racism. And it can take a serious toll on Black women.

When someone is experiencing racial battle fatigue, their body’s stress response system is triggered and sets off a chain of events that might not allow for a recovery stage if the stressors don’t go away.

Racial battle fatigue can manifest in a range of mental and physical symptoms, including increased anxiety and depression, mood swings, chest pains, high blood pressure, ulcers, and insomnia. In one example, Nicole Moore, a former multicultural brand engagement director at Planned Parenthood, reported the racial bias she experienced at work was so bad that her hair began falling out.

How to Combat Racial Battle Fatigue at Work

Dr. Butterfield says she’s frequently seen the effects of racial battle fatigue, and she wants women who find themselves in a similar position to know that they’re not alone, and they can seek help — including from mental health professionals and law firms. 

While mental health treatment like therapy won’t magically fix a racist work environment, an experienced counselor can develop strategies to cope with the stress and anxiety that come with racial bias in the workplace.

Another remedy workers can use to combat sexism and racism in the workplace is retaining legal help.

Federal and state laws protect an employee’s right to work in an environment free from race and gender discrimination. Among other things, an experienced discrimination and harassment lawyer can help you understand these legal rights, advocate for better workplace policies, navigate the reporting process, file complaints with administrative agencies, and negotiate your exit from the company if necessary.

“I only wish that despite her challenges with anxiety and depression, [Dr. Candia-Bailey] knew that help was out there,” Dr. Butterfield said.

Outten & Golden is the largest U.S. law firm dedicated to protecting the rights of employees. Our attorneys are committed to advocating for victims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation in every industry. If you are struggling at work, contact us so we can discuss your situation.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)