”How do faculty assign copious amounts of reading for seminars and exams and fail to include women and scholars of color, time after time? In a program surrounded by a disproportionate number of men, taught by men, reading only men—it’s no wonder women sometimes become sick.”

Lisa Powell talks about the racism, sexism and ableism within the academy – an undercurrent to much of what I wrote in BIPOLAR FAITH.  And she encouraged me to talk about those things I usually only whisper to other women of color.

Comment on Bipolar Faith

Katie Cannon calls on womanists to tell their stories: “Anecdotal evidence does a lot to reveal the truth as to how oppressed people live with integrity, especially when we are repeatedly unheard but not unvoiced, unseen but not invisible.”5 She exhorts womanists to “mine” the “biotexts” of the lived experience to communicate the theo-ethical, and in so doing push against the “intellectual colonization” of the institution, which is perpetuated by the “golden-boy-mind-guards in professional learned societies.”6 This is the work of Coleman’s Bipolar Faith; she tells her story and leaves the reader to fill in the critique. Coleman’s book is not an overt indictment of the theological academy or the academic complex, but her vulnerability may be a catalyst to a broader discussion of the spiritual and psychological environment cultivated in academic institutions shaping church leaders, ministers, and professors of theology. It is far safer to speak theoretically about the oppressive structures in our institutions and guilds, than it is to share your experience of it. Telling our stories requires those who are already vulnerable in this white, male, heterosexual context to put themselves at risk professionally and personally. Coleman’s memoire courageously challenges the cult of the mind in academia, as admitting to depression, anxiety, or illness is akin to suggesting you are not fit to the task. Some will assume you don’t have the mental stamina to endure the rigors of “real” or “serious” theological work.

In the comments that follow I do not mean to suggest that the very real biological condition of Bipolar II, and the experience of Dr. Coleman, is just a result of the burden imposed by misogyny and white supremacy in our theological systems and institutions. I would, however, like to engage her experience and offer my own, to spotlight the disproportionate strain placed upon those engaging theology from outside the dominant “norm.”7

It is no shock that graduate students face high rates of depression, anxiety, and mental distress. Studies indicate that PhD students in the humanities and arts fare worst of all.8 Still other studies consider the extra weight of “imposter syndrome,” which is often accompanied with high levels of depression and anxiety, and is particularly prevalent among women and people of color in fields where they are underrepresented.

” style=”box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0.1em 0px 0.2em; padding: 0.75em 0.34em 0.34em; border: none; outline: 0px; background: 0px 0px rgb(70, 70, 70); font-size: 0.75em; vertical-align: middle; text-size-adjust: 100%; color: rgb(221, 70, 70); text-decoration: none; overflow: hidden; position: relative; z-index: 5; top: -0.25em; display: inline-block; border-radius: 1em; cursor: pointer; opacity: 0.3; line-height: 0; transition-property: opacity; transition-duration: 0.25s; min-width: 32px; text-align: center; height: 1.3em; font-weight: 600; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased;”>9Imposter syndrome relates to the assumption often made that these individuals did not earn their position on merit and possibly beat out more qualified white men for the spot because of their minority status in that field. Sometimes these assumptions seep out in passing conversation in the form of microaggressions, such as one I heard from male colleagues in graduate school: “Oh, you won’t have any trouble getting a job; you’re a woman.” At face value, the intention of this statement may be support for the recipient, but it also cheapens her competence and qualifications, and of course it assures the speaker that if he doesn’t get the job, it is because he is a white male.10 Women and people of color in fields dominated by white men carry an extra psychological burden because of these assumptions, feeling that they must constantly prove that they earned their place within a supposed “meritocracy.”

” style=”box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0.1em 0px 0.2em; padding: 0.75em 0.34em 0.34em; border: none; outline: 0px; background: 0px 0px rgb(70, 70, 70); font-size: 0.75em; vertical-align: middle; text-size-adjust: 100%; color: rgb(221, 70, 70); text-decoration: none; overflow: hidden; position: relative; z-index: 5; top: -0.25em; display: inline-block; border-radius: 1em; cursor: pointer; opacity: 0.3; line-height: 0; transition-property: opacity; transition-duration: 0.25s; min-width: 32px; text-align: center; height: 1.3em; font-weight: 600; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased;”>11One study of the experience of students of color in doctoral programs labels this burden the “‘Am I going crazy?!’ narrative.” Students in the study experienced “feelings of racialized and cultural isolation and tokenism” and noted a “lack of diverse epistemological perspectives in the curriculum.”12 They were often the only person of color in class, were discouraged from using “culturally appropriate . . . theories and frameworks,” and were not mentored in the same way as their white peers.13 The students regularly negotiated when and where they should identify the situation and when to “let it go.”14 The result was feelings of “tentativeness, insecurity and doubt,” which often led to self-censorship.15 The “Am I going crazy?!” narrative sounds much like the world women in theology also navigate throughout graduate school and beyond.

Coleman conducted her doctoral studies at Claremont School of Theology in Southern California,16 and although she does not name misogyny or racism in the institution as part of what deepens her depression, the suggestion may lie implicitly within lines like: “My bookshelves with Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker . . . collected dust. The books . . . that nournished the Dinah Project were untouched. I didn’t even read the work by the mentors I garnered at Vanderbilt. . . . Now I hauled around tomes by dead men in my weathered backpack with the Harvard crest. Harnack, Schleiermacher, Kant, Plato, Augustine, Gadamer, Hegel, Dunne, Troelstch, Whitehead.”17 She says she “did nothing but read all day and every day works of dead white men, and secondary literature about them.” She concludes: “It made me sick. Literally” (251).

Once she is diagnosed with Bipolar II and receives medication to help manage it, she realizes medication could deal with symptoms but couldn’t create a support system: “I needed more friends. I needed a church closer than thirty minutes away. I needed activism. I didn’t find that in Claremont. If I wanted to be alive, and stay alive, I needed to move” (294). She decided to leave her residency in the PhD program earlier than typical and move to Atlanta, and although she does not call out the white culture of her PhD program and location, she colorfully describes what awaited her in Atlanta: “urban black culture,” salons that specialized in black hair, concerts by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Caribbean food, cousins, friends, black churches, African dance classes, and a “city full of black people” (298).

My experience as a white woman in theology, who does not have a diagnosed mental illness, is different from Coleman’s. Yet, the experience of doctoral study in systematic theology produced many similar symptoms in my own life. The seminar-style class surely contributed to my insecurity and depression.18 Seminar discussions often diverted on the whim of our most vocal and vehement students, which typically resulted in few female contributions.19 In one a professor awkwardly dealt with this by suddenly announcing the other woman in the class would have a pop quiz that day, a public oral exam in seminar. The following week I was abruptly asked to weigh in on an aggressive debate that wandered far from our assigned reading into books I’d never read.

My first panic attack occurred midway through my first semester, the day before our seminar would devote three hours to reading and discussing my ten-page, single-spaced analysis of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of salvation. I’d never experienced one before. I imagined going into my seminar the next afternoon with nothing, an utter failure, forced to drop out of the program. Somehow near the end of the sleepless night my brain calmed, and I was able to produce something passable for class discussion. But the fear that at any moment my mind would betray me in this way brought a sort of panic all its own for the proceeding months.

I was fortunate to be one of two females in a cohort of five studying systematic theology; the year before only one woman entered systematics, and some cohorts have no women, so it was not unheard of to be the lone female in coursework. In the seminars where we were fortunate enough to have more women, we held abbreviated discussions in the sanctum of the women’s restroom during the fifteen-minute breaks. Here we rapidly and excitedly exchanged ideas, building on each other’s observations, until someone would look at her watch and sigh, and we solemnly returned to the room. Perhaps this was most disappointing during our Theological Anthropology seminar. We were not assigned any women theologians, but long portions from Barth and Aquinas. When a student tried to raise the feminist critique of Barth’s theological anthropology, our professor shut her down with his defense of Barth, claiming such charges are unfair because of his historical context, and defended his decision not to engage this by recounting all the things he personally does for women on campus.

Coleman describes the pressure she felt in her PhD program and her concern that they would find out about her depression: “I wanted to be smart. I wanted to get good grades. I wanted to write a dissertation that made a contribution to my field. I wanted to make them proud. They could not know, they could never know, that something was wrong with my mind” (291). Coleman’s untreated condition gave her insomnia, and the depth of her sleep deprivation left her body depleted; she suffered extended physical illness and a decline of mental acuity. She writes: “I was fearful and ashamed” (297).

My physical symptoms were not as acute, but the shame haunted me, and I tried to hide every sign of weakness; I felt fragile. According to my ophthalmologist, the stress gave me a “lazy eye,” which was causing me to see double. Further, I was a passenger in a serious car accident at the end of my first year, which had me hospitalized for three days with numerous internal injuries and a concussion, followed by weeks on bed rest, which was difficult to accommodate living alone in an isolated PhD program. Fearing the effect of the concussion on my work, or that faculty would assume I’d fall behind as a result, I kept this from them. The following year it was a breast mass, second opinions, and surgery. I kept this private also; I couldn’t make myself more vulnerable, and perhaps I didn’t want to have to mention my breasts. Since our conversations were always restricted to research or teaching, things related to my “personal life” never came up anyway.

I suffered under the weight of dread and fear I would disappoint those people who put faith in me, including my family, but also those who wrote me letters of recommendation and encouraged me in my pursuit of this intellectual life; I was certain I was failing them. I felt shame that I wasn’t actually “cut out” for this, or smart enough. A defensive shell of resentment grew to protect what was left of any belief I had that I could be “successful” in this field or that I had something to offer it.

Relationships with faculty and advisors are commonly cited factors in graduate student distress,20 a situation addressed by post-colonial theologian Susan Abraham. She highlights not only the insufficiency of mentorship like that noted in the “Am I crazy?!” study, but also the actual harm caused in “being mentored by those who refuse to acknowledge their racial, class, gender, sexuality, or religious privilege in the academy,” as this only “serves to deepen the many experiences of alienation.”21 Abraham writes that she received some ruse of mentorship only if she performed to cultural stereotypes imposed upon her as a Catholic woman from India studying and working in the United States. This expectation and lack of true mentorship “became a problem [she] had to overcome emotionally and psychologically.”22

At the end of my first year, my chair asked to be removed from my committee because my research was still concentrated on liberative themes in historical theology, saying: “I assumed you would have grown out of this interest in liberation theology by now.” I intended to follow the advice given me by a respected woman in systematic theology visiting from Harvard who told me to “write a dissertation that will make the boys happy; then write whatever you want.” In the end I wrote on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, hardly making the “boys happy.” When the notice of my dissertation defense was sent out, one professor commented to a member of my committee that he didn’t understand why I chose to write on this woman, as if it were random. Similar comments were made regarding another theology student when she decided to write her dissertation on a woman whose work was not yet published in English, as if it were a shame because she showed such promise. Why are our investigations of the theological contributions of women relegated to a niche subcategory, no longer considered systematic theology?

Perhaps we chose to feature the contributions of women because we needed it for our mental health. After all, female voices were virtually absent from our seminars and reading lists for our “comprehensive” exams, reflecting what was deemed important and relevant, and perpetuating this culture through the future educators trained in this manner. (How do faculty assign copious amounts of reading for seminars and exams and fail to include women and scholars of color, time after time?) In a program surrounded by a disproportionate number of men, taught by men, reading only men—it’s no wonder women sometimes become sick.

I finally sought help, not for depression, but for what I feared was a tumor in my throat when I began to struggle to swallow the softest of food, even soup. I lost weight rapidly. My doctor explained this was not an unusual physical response to extreme stress and put me on an anti-depressant. At the AAR meeting that fall a member of my committee noticed how thin I had become and commented that it may concern potential hiring committees. So I added the worry that committees would think I had an eating disorder or was overly concerned with my appearance and wanted to be this thin. I wonder if skinny male colleagues had to worry about this.

I’m not sure what difference it makes if sexism is overt or simply perceived. The problem pertains to the uncertainty itself—the psychological burden of wondering what comment or lack of engagement is related to your gender—and the stress of navigating these questions constantly. We have to weigh the cost of: drawing more attention to our already troublingly sexed bodies by bringing up an issue when it arises; being punished for playing the “victim card”; or being dismissed as one whose work focuses on women and thus isn’t rigorous or relevant to the discipline as a whole. Even now nearly ten years beyond graduation, though it has lessoned, these nagging question emerge around student comments, speaking invitations, and so on. Katie Cannon says, “We often wonder if our experiences . . . are peculiar to the religious academy or if these are general patterns of misogyny practiced in other fields of study where women have been traditionally barred, such as in medicine and law.”23 We often wonder.

Four years into my PhD program, deeply distressed, I could not pray anymore. The only God I’d known was now identified with their God, the God debated in bombastic and combative tones, the God of those who drowned out the voices of women around the table. I was begging for help from a God for whom these people were the gatekeepers, and I couldn’t trust “Him.”24 I couldn’t cling to this God in my broken vulnerability, but I didn’t have another God to whom to turn. It has taken years to wrench the God of my faith away from the possessive grip of the guarders of conservative orthodoxy, to rebuild trust in God and reconstruct my love of the Christian faith through the work of Cone, Gutierrez, and Kwok Pui-Lan.

Theology is perhaps unique among academic disciplines in that the task is typically related to the core identity of the theologian. It is discourse around one’s life-centering purpose and object of devotion. It touches to the most tender parts of a person’s belief system.25 As Coleman vividly illustrates from her own experience, for many God is the one we turn to in crisis, in our need, and in suffering. What happens when we experience the system around this God-talk as one that bombards us with messages that we aren’t good enough, don’t belong, or that the work produced by people in our communities isn’t a significant contribution to this conversation? What does the context of theological education do to one’s spirit and psyche when “the masterminds of intellectual imperialism encode our candid perceptions and scholarly labor as nothing more than culturally laden idiosyncrasies”?26 We enter a program of study in service to God, and surrender ourselves to the parameters and criteria of the discipline, but upon entering, find it antagonistic to our perspectives, experiences, and ways of being. How do our bodies, our selves, and our faith survive?

Response to Lisa Powell

Lisa Powell finds the story I did not tell. She finds the traces of it where it seeps out in the cracks of the story I was trying to tell. Because, of course, the experience of racism and sexism and ableism within the academy—the theological academy—is woven into the fabric of my professional and personal life. The threads are so fine, sometimes, I forget the colors they add to the tapestry.

When I first read Powell’s reflection, her notations felt tangential to Bipolar Faith. Yes, I escaped what felt to me like the God-forsaken context of Claremont Graduate University and Claremont, California. Yes, I read the philosophies of so many dead white men. But that was not the story of depression I was trying to tell. That was the context of one section. Oh, but Powell is right. The dominance of dead and near-dead white men is the context of higher education, of the academy, of the wider world for many women and many people of color. Our histories and perspectives are overlooked; our classroom contributions largely ignored. We are socialized, taught, and justifiably afraid to be vulnerable. We want, at least I wanted, to learn and to show that I could philosophize with the rest of them—the white men. Learning and living and trying to succeed in that kind of atmosphere shapes who we are, and at best, does not ease any stressors, and at worst, facilitates, deepens, and causes anxiety, depression, and more overtly physical ailments.

So if there was anything fueling my silence and deepening my experiences of depression, it was knowing that there is what Powell names as “the cult of the mind in academia,” and that “admitting to depression, anxiety, or illness is akin to suggesting that [I am] not fit to the task.”

Powell names the biotext of Bipolar Faith as womanist work à la Katie Cannon’s naming. Cannon’s recent transition to ancestor status only intensifies the honor of this description. Cannon was to me, as she was to so many, an encourager. She sent handwritten notes of congratulations for every academic milestone. She welcomed me into womanist religious scholarship in theoretical and tangible ways. She encouraged me to furnish the “womanist house of wisdom” that she and her generation of womanist scholars struggled to build. She invited me to discuss the joys and challenges of teaching. She, and her mother, drove from her corner of North Carolina to my corner of North Carolina so that she could talk with my students. And Katie Cannon told the story of how she encountered racism and sexism and how it completely changed the course of her academic career. Her harrowing, difficult, unjust, field-innovating journey gave us black womanist ethics.

By the accident of age and exposure, I found Cannon’s writings. And James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore and Renita Weems and Sallie McFague and Rosemary Ruether and Majorie Suchocki. I found their work before I knew about Barth, Whitehead, Bultmann, Nietzsche, and the boys. So I knew that black women had their own theologies and perspectives in religious studies. It was their writings that lured me to the religious academy. On the one hand, it made the European philosophers more shocking. On the other hand, I knew that they were not the end of religious reflection—only a route to the road I wanted to walk.

Powell reminds me of the parts of my story I hint at, but did not tell. I did not mention how I constantly combined sass with loneliness and what Cannon calls “unshouted courage” to assert my right to be the only black woman in classrooms of fifteen white men, one Asian man, and two white women. That was what coursework looked like for me. Or how I rapped on the door of the one black woman faculty member and asked to sit in her office because no, I don’t need anything, but I just need to hear the cadence of your voice and the rhythm of your gait to feel a little less alone. Upon learning that I was clergy, classmates with one graduate degree less than I treated me as if I wasn’t qualified to study philosophy, and so I wore my Harvard backpack to class as a silent way of sliding my credentials across the table. “I see you and raise you,” I thought. I wrote about West African religion and black women’s science fiction and popular African American religious leaders in my classes on dead white men’s philosophy. These acts were designed to say: “I belong here. This is my field too.”

I never felt that the white maleness of my field contributed to my illness. It’s always been the backdrop in which I’ve lived a public life. Elementary school, high school, college, divinity school. My early childhood lessons on race and humanity contained admonitions from my parents about what Langston Hughes calls “the ways of white folk” and the kinds of overqualification I would need to receive “half as much.” Negotiating white male space is an endemic part of being a living black woman. Did it make me sick? Inasmuch as it makes all black women sick. Or perhaps the better term is “tired.” Because we’ve been doing it for so long. I knew that there was no safety to be found in a place not made for my survival. I did not look to schools or academic programs as safe havens. I came to each with a level of racialized and gendered skepticism. I barely believed my faculty were on my side. It took years for me to see them as allies. I tried to portray them as such in Bipolar Faith.

So, Powell reminds me of my micro-resistances. That I took steps everyday, in little ways (and sometimes in big ways) to assert my humanity, my merit, my intellect, my sanity. Powell reminds me that I long had these taught-and-learned modalities: a small group of tightly-knit friends, music, dancing, church-attendance, extended family, black culture, women’s circles. And when a context did not serve me, I left. I left so I could have some space of acceptance in the desert of white-male-academy. I left to various oases. The oasis of blackness in Atlanta, of feminist Christianity in Circle of Grace, of cousins and music and food that nourished and sustained me while I spent my days in the stacks with the books written by men who died decades before. That was how I answered Powell’s question: “How do our bodies, our selves, and our faiths survive?”

Original published here