It started with a series of late Saturday night social media posts earlier this month about what it was like to be Black in academia.
“I [worked as a teaching assistant] for an older white male colleague one term and he thought I said something funny during class and came off the podium, up to my seat, put his hand in my hair and scratched it like I was a DOG!! I was so flabbergasted, I didn’t even know what to say,” Shardé Davis, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, posted on Twitter with the hashtag #BlackintheIvory.
That night, her friend Joy Melody Woods, a doctoral student at the University of Texas Austin in communications studies, posted an Instagram video about her husband’s harrowing experience last year as he tried to deal with a minor oversight in an academic citation that threatened to sink his career. Woods also flagged her experience under #BlackintheIvory.
Since then hundreds of professors, graduate students, researchers, and doctors across the United States and around the globe have rallied around #BlackintheIvory, calling out their personal experiences of discrimination and racial inequality on college campuses. Their words and experiences are searing: Doctors and medical students mistaken for janitors. Researchers discouraged from focusing on issues related to the Black community. Tenure denials and assumptions from white colleagues that they earned admissions and funding because of their race, not their accomplishments. And the unpaid and underappreciated work of mentoring students of color.
Social media, and Twitter particularly, have often bolstered the voices of Black activists and helped push issues about race and society to the forefront, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the #OscarSoWhite campaign, which targeted Hollywood’s lack of diversity. But rarely has the aim been so squarely pointed at higher education.
The police killings of Black men and women, the coronavirus pandemic that has forced professors to teach online and remain uncertain about the fall semester, and growing frustrations with their working conditions, have led to this moment of reckoning.
“Had this hashtag occurred in January, I don’t think it would have grown legs and run off in the way that it has,” Davis said. “People are like, ‘You know what, screw it, like I’m fed up. I’m tired.’ ”
College campuses are often portrayed as progressive enclaves where students are always protesting, faculty fear being politically incorrect, and diversity is core to the curriculum. But #BlackintheIvory has illustrated just how bruising campuses can be for many Black academics.
“It’s amplifying conversations we were having with friends and colleagues,” said Daphne Penn, a visiting fellow in education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It has really highlighted a need for change. It dispels the myth that universities are part of the solution, when they have a lot of work to do.”
The widespread use of the #BlackintheIvory hashtag has also reminded many Black academics and scientists that they are not alone, said Rachel Bernard, a visiting professor at Amherst College’s geology department.
“I really appreciated the hashtag, being a Black geologist,” she said. “There’s really not anybody to share your experiences with.”
Bernard said she is usually restrained about what she shares on social media and rarely posts on Twitter. But, she said, after reading so many other academics discuss their stories of racial discrimination and bias, she decided to reveal her own experiences.
“When I got admitted into MIT early action senior year, it was one of the best moments of my life. But then a friend told me a mutual friend said it was because I was Black. My first academic success — these memories are still intertwined,” Bernard posted on Twitter.
The MIT admissions moment stuck with her because it wasn’t rare, just the first of many similar experiences throughout her academic career, she said in an interview.
When she started graduate school in 2013, she was the only Black student in her department of 200 scientists.
“I didn’t realize what it was like to be in an all-white space, and it shocked me that nobody else seemed to care,” Bernard said.
But it drove her and a friend to research race in geosciences, finding that the tiny share of PhDs in geosciences awarded to Black and Latino researchers hadn’t budged since 1973.
In recent weeks, spurred by the more open discussion of racism in academia, Bernard said she has noticed a heightened interest in diversifying the field and even spoken to a white colleague who worried about failing to be sensitive enough when Black researchers went to do fieldwork in remote, rural communities where they may feel isolated and unsafe because of their race.
Troy Amen, 27, who is earning a medical and business degree at Harvard, said he has wanted to talk more openly about the need for diversity in the medical faculty, but like many, worried about the professional repercussions. He wrote a lengthy piece three years ago sharing his concerns and experiences as a Black student, but posted it only this month, because as he said on Twitter, “enough is enough.”
“I really want them to talk about diversity and inclusion in medical schools not in respect to students, but faculty,” Amen said in an interview. “I think this is a special moment in history. People are more willing to listen. I’m more hopeful this time.”
Despite the outpouring of shared pain unearthed by the #BlackintheIvory hashtag, much more has been left unsaid, Black academics said. Some of the instances of racial prejudice are too personal and too painful to share. Others are worried that saying too much could harm their chances of promotions and tenure in a system where collegiality is valued and crucial for success.
Janie Victoria Ward, a professor and chairwoman of Africana Studies at Simmons University, said she appreciates the power of social media to bring together so many Black academics to push for change. When she started in academia, Black professors had to rely on professional conferences held once or twice a year to discuss the struggles they were having and plot strategies for how to address them.
“What is sad is that a lot of the stories are the same old stories that I heard as a young professor,” Ward said. “We’re talking about complex institutions, and faculty, especially faculty of color, always have to look over their shoulder.”
But Ward warns that changing the power structures on campuses is likely to take time, because so many decisions are made behind closed doors by committees voting on who should get tenure and what curriculum is appropriate. Those professors and administrators who make some of the most important decisions on campuses remain largely white, she said.
According to the most recent data from the US Education Department just under 9 percent of doctoral degrees, the crucial credential in academia, are conferred on Black students. In some science, math, and engineering fields the numbers are even lower. And of full-time faculty at colleges and universities nationwide, 3 percent are Black men and 3 percent are Black women, compared to 54 percent who are white men and 27 percent who are white women.
“As you go through that pipeline it gets whiter, and whiter, and whiter,” Ward said. “I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. We’ve got a long, long, long way to go.”
Still, Woods, the cofounder of the #BlackintheIvory hashtag, said she thinks there is an opening where white academics and administrators are seeing the problems more clearly and want to create a more equitable campus.
In recent weeks, colleges and universities in Massachusetts and across the country, including Northeastern University and Boston College, have announced goals to hire more faculty of color, appointed or elevated chief diversity officers, and placed greater priority on the study of racism.
“What this hashtag has been able to do allows those people to see that there was really no need for them to be super-defensive because it’s a problem,” Woods said. “And we can only fix the problem if we address it.”
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.