However, during the past few years while working as a professor I have begun the practice of asking for and receiving support. I have learned these lessons out of desperation. Throughout school, in the face of common obstacles such as inadequate resources, “imposter syndrome” and an unstable family, I unconsciously developed what I’ll call the “Fierce Sista” coping strategy (the lesbian cousin of the “Strong Black Woman” survival style). This approach is usually a blend of stunning independence, affable humor, and endurance for suppressing one’s own human needs packaged in a fabulous Gucci bag or sophisticated bow tie. For many years this strategy worked. I successfully crossed over the finish line to a PhD. But when I “made it” into an increasingly rare tenure-stream position, I discovered I had only earned the opportunity to prove myself all over again by facing a set of more difficult challenges and demands. I had to gear up for a second marathon, but I was running on fumes without sneakers.
Fortunately, I had some peer mentors—supportive colleagues who are close to my professional rank with a few more years experience or a different set of skills—who enlightened me about the necessity of help and showed me ways to get it. I no longer feel that I need to or even want to succeed on my own. As a result, I have learned to take better care of my health. So, to pay forward the assistance I’ve received, I’ll share five ways to accept help if you are a person of color. Allies, please feel free to share this information with people of color you care about who may be employing the “Fierce Sista” coping strategy.
5. Understand that Actual Help is Available
Frequently, institutions and authorities that claim to offer assistance to our communities are in fact abusing, damaging and diminishing us. Through churches that have soup kitchens on Wednesday and homophobic sermons on Sunday, teachers who tell students Christopher Columbus was a hero, or police officers who “stop and frisk” instead of fulfilling their duty to protect and serve; we learn that so-called help is often a wolf in a welfare caseworker’s clothing. This consistent failure of mainstream institutions to offer support that actually empowers and strengthens may understandably make some of us averse to putting our hand to the fire.
There is also the reality that help is rarely available to us. Our independence grows out of necessity because, too often, we attend schools that are under-resourced and our families can’t afford private tutoring, test preparation, etc. Free programs, such as the ones staffed by the teachers I met, are in high demand and difficult to get into. Aware that there may not be much in the way of support available to us, our parents, grandparents and caretakers encourage us by saying, “You don’t need anyone else” “Don’t cry, be Strong” and “No one’s going to hand you anything!” Forging ahead alone becomes second nature.
As grown-ups, it is important we understand actual help is indeed available and there are ways to identify it. The key is to shop around for support the way you would look for jeans. Make sure it’s a good fit! On university campuses, writing centers, advisors and study help are widely available. Find someone to work with who makes you comfortable, seems to understand your particular challenges and demonstrates an ability to help you reach your goal. If the advisor or tutor doesn’t work for you, try another one until you find what’s right. You can also turn to student groups, your campus multi-cultural affairs/social justice office or Black and Latin@ fraternities/sororities for recommendations on who to work with or how to take advantage of certain resources.
4. Realize Everyone Successful Enjoys Help (Especially Wealthy White People)
Some of us are reluctant to ask for or accept help because we fear being stigmatized as needy or inferior. This fear is intensified by racist and classist stereotypes that mislabel us as lazier, less intelligent or less deserving than wealthy White people. Because we are often the one or part of a handful of representatives of our group on campus, we know our entire race and/or ethnicity is being judged by our individual actions. We want to disprove these stereotypes singlehandedly, no matter how ridiculous anyone is for believing them in the first place.
The fact is wealthy White people routinely enjoy a great deal of support in their everyday lives. Help at work (administrative assistant, staff, interns), at home (nanny, housecleaner, doorman, interior designer, personal assistant), at the gym (personal trainer, Pilates instructor) and at school (tutors, SAT prep courses, coaches, college counselors) is commonplace in affluent enclaves like Tribeca and Beverly Hills. This makes sense because support breeds success.
Assistance is not something that is only for the needy, the poor or the deficient. Quite the opposite, empowering support is a luxury. If you are lucky enough to have access, enjoy it.
3. Get That World Off Your Shoulders
So you understand actual help is available and everyone successful enjoys support, but there is still something holding you back from answering that email offering free tutoring or taking the flier announcing a scholarship. You may be too weighed down by the burdens of other people’s expectations and guilt about your previous success. In your quest to solve your family’s financial problems, assure your friends that you’re still that same kid from the block and fit in with a campus culture that makes your concerns and aspirations invisible, you may have lost yourself.
Unjustly, educational opportunities for people from our neighborhoods and communities to succeed are too scarce. Many of us are university pioneers in our families, paving the way with our achievements towards the elusive American dream. Into our Calculus, Introduction to American History and The Women of Shakespeare classes, we carry the burden of our communities’ aspirations along with guilt of knowing most of our family members, neighbors and friends will not enjoy the same opportunities we have. It is exhausting. You can stop now.