The Cost of Leading While Black

President Sean Decatur describes how racist harassment takes an invisible toll.

Editor's note: This essay first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 3, 2022.

If you are a Black person in America, you can measure with an egg timer how long it takes for an intense disagreement to lead to the invocation of racist tropes. We saw this early in the first term of President Barack Obama, when the debate over health care quickly deteriorated into overt racism: Posters portrayed the president of the United States as a witch doctor, and a U.S. representative felt empowered to shout “You lie!” as the president addressed Congress. As president of Kenyon College, not of the nation, I am grateful to deal with issues with considerably lower stakes than those faced by President Obama. But predictably, the dynamics of race in America are fractal: They can be observed at all scales, from the paths of power in Washington to the gravel paths of bucolic Gambier, Ohio.

For over a year and a half, one of the most controversial issues on Kenyon’s campus has been an effort to organize a union of undergraduate student workers. The student organizers feel that a labor union would be an important advocate for student workers. After carefully considering their point of view, the Board of Trustees and I concluded that a union would undermine the distinctly educational relationship we have with students. This is a complex issue, with legitimate points of view in conflict, and it will take the National Labor Relations Board to resolve it. In the meantime, the passions are intense, shaped in part by a larger national debate over unionization on college campuses. I am in the position of authority, and with this has come the types of attacks (“union buster,” etc.) that one would expect at these moments. It goes with the territory, and generally it has not affected either my position on the issues or the respect I have for the student organizers.

But this essay is not about the union-organizing effort, or about Kenyon’s students. It is about the most recent time my egg timer went off, last week.

My office, and several other offices on campus, received a series of voice-mail messages that cut straight to the chase. An example: “Tell your n***** president to recognize the union, or go back to the plantation where his grandma is from.” Other messages invoked collard greens and fried chicken (I should put these down and recognize the union). And rap music (once I recognize the union, I can go back to playing it). And a strange reference to Harriet Tubman that unintentionally highlighted ignorance about slavery.

If I sound flip about this, it is because such attacks are all too familiar. This is not the first time I have received racist messages; it has been a fairly predictable event whenever a college controversy attracts attention beyond the Kenyon community. In this case, we don’t know the source of the messages. The available evidence suggests that they probably came from off campus — from someone unaffiliated with Kenyon. We put the usual safety measures in place. I was angry when I first heard the messages, and rode extra hard on my stationary bike. But I was not shocked or surprised.

Moreover, I am not alone in this experience. At a meeting of African American college and university presidents last year, someone asked for a show of hands from those who had received harassing or threatening messages. Nearly every hand went up. In America, being called the N-word at moments of controversy is part of the cost of leading while Black.

I have been asked over the years by well-intentioned white acquaintances whether I see myself as a college president or a Black college president. My racial identity, like all aspects of my experience, is not something from which I can (or would want to) separate. It informs the way I see the world, the way I teach, the way I lead. But the question itself inverts the reality of the lived experience of Black Americans. I know, and my colleagues know, that I will be seen as a Black president, regardless of how I define or describe myself.

But more than that — I have come to expect that race will be weaponized to undermine not only a leader’s authority but also that leader’s very humanity and sense of belonging. The aim is to intimidate and exhaust us. It is certainly no accident that one of the messages left with a colleague, also a Black man, appealed to the tired trope of affirmative action. The larger message could not be clearer: We do not belong, we are not qualified to lead. Racism is easily identifiable in N-word-laden comments. But we should not forget that this extreme racism is enabled — indeed empowered — by a more subtle yet still toxic rhetoric of disrespect.

I greatly admire the resilience and strength of my friends who are Black leaders in a range of fields, who manage this extra emotional weight at every difficult decision or controversy. They lead with integrity and dignity, knowing that a racist backlash lurks around the corner. For the most part this labor is silent. Folks absorb the abuse in order to avoid being seen as over-reactive, over-emotional — to avoid the accusation that we are the ones playing the race card. But perhaps it is time that we break this silence, for our own health if nothing else.

In the meantime, I’ll reset my timer.