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The Political Scene
How Black Lives Matter Came to the Academy
By Kristal Brent Zook
January 30, 2021
The #BlackInTheIvory hashtag helped to surface decades of bias at universities.​Photograph by Ed Kashi / VII / Redux
On a Saturday night in early June, Shardé Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut, was sitting on a couch in a rented apartment in San Diego, scrolling through her Twitter feed. She was in California to do research on a project that was funded by a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship—plans that had been affected somewhat by covid-19 and the widespread protests for racial justice. Davis herself had gone to a Black Lives Matter protest in La Mesa the previous weekend. The event had started out peacefully but turned ugly when California Highway Patrol officers squared off with thousands of protesters on the I-8 freeway. There were reports of bottles thrown, tear gas unleashed, arson, and looting.
A week later, after attending another protest, Davis still couldn’t calm down. As she sat alone on her couch, ruminating about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and news coverage of the La Mesa protest—the crowd had been mostly white and Latinx, she said, but the media made it seem as though Black folks were the ones destroying property—she felt more and more enraged.
She asked herself repeatedly, “What can I do?” She was already thinking about what it would look like for universities to cut ties with police departments. “I think I was just drawing the very obvious connections,” she said. “Academia is seen as a very liberal and progressive place, but systemic racism is running through all of these different institutions.”
Although she was not an avid Twitter user, Davis came up with the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory, thinking it might be a good way for Black people to share their stories about racism in her sphere of influence. “Folks tout the liberal ivory tower,” she told me. “They hide behind it.”
She texted a friend, Joy Melody Woods, a doctoral student in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, to see what she thought of the hashtag idea. “I love it,” Woods replied from her iPhone. “Already tweeted it out.” Davis followed suit, using the hashtag while retweeting a physician named Shaquita Bell: “Black individuals in the United States have endured events in our everyday life without an audience or validation of our experiences.”
The next morning, Davis and Woods found their notification in-boxes filled with hundreds of tweets from Black academics and graduate students, sharing their stories of exclusion and pain. By Sunday night, #BlackInTheIvory was one of the top twenty hashtags in the country. #BlackInTheIvory is being asked during your first week of college if you’re sure you can handle it, many said, or being asked on campus if you’re in the right place or “lost.” #BlackInTheIvory is having campus security constantly ask for your research-lab badge, residence-hall identification, and/or driver’s license. Marc Edwards, now an assistant professor of biology at Amherst College, recalled that, in graduate school, at another institution, a dean suggested he wear a tie to class in response to incessant profiling. #BlackInTheIvory is being thrashed in student evaluations for discussing racial injustice, Danielle Clealand, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote. And my personal favorite: #BlackInTheIvory is being asked to serve on endless diversity committees and write endless diversity reports, without regard for one’s labor or time, also known as the “Black tax.” To drive the point home, Woods and Davis posted Venmo bar codes on their Twitter feeds for anyone who might care to contribute.
The movement took off, with feature stories in Nature, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NBCNews.com, and the Boston Globe. Davis and Woods created a Web site, which sold branded merchandise and launched an effort to match Black graduate students in need with donors. “Not the Diversity Hire,” read the text on one coffee mug.
“You’re finally seeing people opening up and sharing these experiences,” Woods said. “We had been feeling like we were alone.”
When Woods and I spoke in June, she told me the story of her own experience as an incoming graduate student. In the fall of 2016, she was the only Black student on her track in a master’s program in public health at the University of Iowa. The college had no Black faculty, and Woods said that professors made it clear that she didn’t belong, that she wasn’t smart enough. One professor told her directly that she “didn’t have the skills to be a graduate student.”
“I was feeling maybe I am dumb,” she said. “I thought I was going insane. I would just be on the floor crying.”
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Toward the end of her first semester, Woods tried reporting one faculty member to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, but the complaint went nowhere. “It’s hard to prove microaggressions,” she said. “That’s why we think we’re going crazy.”
In Woods’s second semester of graduate school, a private psychologist tested her for learning disabilities. She discovered that she had three: a reading impairment, a visual-spatial processing disability, and a nonverbal learning disability. The psychologist told Woods that she didn’t know how she had managed to finish high school. Yet her professors refused to provide learning accommodations, as is required by law. (In response, a spokesperson from the college said that “we have made progress since 2016, but it is not enough. We are determined to do better.”)
So she left. “Walked right across the bridge,” as she put it, transferring to the College of Education, where she found three Black professors, an Asian-American adviser, and far more Black students in her classes. “I was never the ‘only’ anymore,” she said. The course readings also featured more diverse authors, and, because they explicitly addressed issues of inequality, it was easier to have open conversations about racism. In her new program, Woods completed a master’s degree in Educational Policy and Leadership Studies with an emphasis on the sociology of education.
But, in many ways, Woods is an exception. Both of her parents have bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, and her two older sisters have graduate degrees in medicine and science. Many other Black students leave graduate programs in despair, but Woods felt that her family simply wouldn’t accept her defeat.
She persisted, but her education came at a cost. “These experiences are traumatic,” Woods said. They can be isolating and emotionally battering. The problem of being the “first and the only” Black person in any institution is that being alone makes it much easier for white majorities to dismiss one’s perceptions.
As a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I experienced the same isolation and resentment that Black women are now once again shouting about from their Twitter-feed rooftops. I know all too well what #BlackInTheIvory is about. I was already writing about my time in graduate school when I came across the hashtag. It took a moment for its meaning to sink in. For so long, I had recalled my experiences in isolation, pushing them to the corners of my memory and doing my best to make them small. #BlackInTheIvory reminded me that, like Woods, I wasn’t alone.
In 1988, I was the first Black woman to enroll in my Ph.D. program in ten years. I was there, really, only because my undergraduate mentor, Elliott Butler-Evans, a Black professor in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had insisted on it. He had attended the program and received his own Ph.D. there, some years earlier. He told me about the dearth of Black women with tenure in the U.C. system. In his eyes, getting a doctorate was my civic duty. So I went to graduate school.
There were seven incoming students at the history-of-consciousness program at U.C. Santa Cruz that year: five white men and women, me, and a Chicano from Los Angeles named Raul. One afternoon, the conversation in our first-year seminar turned to race.
Our professors for the seminar, Donna Haraway and Jim Clifford, were two of the most formidable minds I had ever met. The conversation was stimulating, as I recall. Something about how racial meaning is socially constructed, perhaps, rather than strictly biological. I was only just beginning to wrap my head around post-structuralism and “theory,” and the concepts were still fresh and new. But it soon became apparent that a young woman in our cohort was becoming agitated. I’ll call her Mary. She shifted in her seat as though biting her tongue.
“It’s just that I’m Italian-American and . . . I get really tan in the summer,” Mary said. She paused, searching the room. It seemed that no one had a clue what she was getting at. Raul and I exchanged confused looks, waiting for her to complete her thought.
“I mean, I get even darker than her,” she said, crooking her chin in my direction. And that’s when she hit me with it. “So . . . I don’t understand, why does she get to be Black?”
I wish I could say that anyone had a good response to what Mary had said. If they did, I don’t recall. I remember only the silence.
I was isolated in a program in which not a single student or faculty member looked like me, or my mother, or my grandmother, or anyone in my family. All around me were hippie-like surfer students, white kids who found it perfectly acceptable to walk the woodsy paths barefoot on a warm day, or to wear their straight hair in clumped mats. For so many of them, college was an inevitable part of growing up. They treated the privilege with a certain casualness that I, as a first-generation student, did not share.
And, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time, I crossed a bridge that year in search of bolstering, just like Joy Woods. I made my way across campus, over to Kresge College, where I found the writer Gloria Anzaldúa working on a doctorate in literature. Gloria called herself a Chicana-Mexicana-mestiza. She had edited a seminal book for Black and brown feminists, “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” that was mandatory reading in women’s-studies courses across the country. I also found Ekua Omosupe, an African-American single mom from Mississippi. We three became friends. I was no longer alone.
“I’m putting together another anthology,” Gloria told me one day, “and I was wondering if you have any essays or poems you’d like to contribute?” She did that thing which is so often missing from our lives as Black scholars and academics. Nurturing.
“It doesn’t have to be polished. Just send me what you have.” My essay, which I called “Light-Skinned’ded Naps,” appeared in “Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras” the next year. It was my first published piece of writing. I was twenty-three years old.
Not long afterward, the literature department brought the novelists Toni Cade Bambara and Buchi Emecheta to campus, as distinguished visiting professors, and my life changed again. I became their teaching assistant, crossing campus regularly to commune with my newfound Black community.
One day, after class, I walked with Toni back to her office. The day was bright and impossibly blue—which made her next words seem incongruous. She pulled a small AM radio from her pocket. “Always carry a short-wave radio,” she told me. “For when the revolution comes.” I loved her commitment to revolutionary ideas, and to Black people, and to me.
I plopped myself down in a chair in her office, continuing our conversation. Mostly, I was hungry for her affirmation, which she gave freely. Years later, I found an old cassette tape of an interview she gave for my dissertation, on nationalist desire in Black television, film, and literature. Playing it back, I was mortified to discover that I had done most of the talking. Toni listened patiently, offering “mm-hmm”s in all the right places.
With Buchi, a Nigerian novelist, one day in particular stands out in my memory. She stood before a class of white students, pausing to survey a Douglas fir outside the window.
“For you, the trees and the forest are very beautiful,” she said. “Beau-ti-ful,” she repeated, enunciating each syllable with her thick, British accent. “But for me I see something more in the forests.”
Uh-oh. I surveyed the room, sensing what was coming.
“I see fear and danger.” She pronounced this last word “dan-jah,” allowing it to linger in the coffee-scented air for a beat or two. “You just don’t know who might be behind those trees.” The class considered her words in silence. She was right, and they knew it, although I doubt that a Black person had ever said this to them before in quite that way.
“And, if something happens, well, then . . . I’m just another Black woman gone. I wouldn’t even get two sentences in the newspaper.” Buchi paused, allowing students to sit with their discomfort awhile. One rustled papers. Another crossed and uncrossed her legs.
Buchi smiled, shifting the mood. “Well . . . you know.” Her expression turned playful. “Since I am Buchi, I might get two or three lines.”
There was relieved laughter.
The next year, two Latinas and another Black woman enrolled in my program, across campus, and, because there was now a critical mass of students of color, we rallied and demanded that the department hire a Black woman professor. Because that is precisely how these things work. There is power in numbers.
The university heard our demands, and, in 1990, the scholar and activist Angela Davis became the first person of color ever to join the full-time faculty in the history-of-consciousness program. She arrived just as I was leaving. And, although I didn’t get to take any classes with her, she supported me by serving on my dissertation committee.
The resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the launch of #BlackInTheIvory happened in June, when most universities were already online, owing to covid-19, and wrapping up the semester. Faculty and administrators did not yet feel widespread pressure to address race. That would soon change.
At Hofstra University, on Long Island, where I’ve taught journalism for the past thirteen years, a handful of my colleagues created the Black Faculty Council to address issues of systemic racism and bias. The group outlined a list of twelve recommendations, including making public the number and rank of Black faculty on campus (a figure that hovers between four and six per cent nationally); providing mandatory anti-racism and anti-Black-bias training for students, faculty, staff, and administration; and disclosing details about complaints regarding the department of public safety and campus policing. A coalition of Black students sent their own eight-page list of demands to administrators—which included a zero-tolerance hate-speech policy, more diversity among professors, support for Black mental health, a revitalization of the Africana-studies program, and mandatory undergraduate requirements for courses on race and racism in the United States.
Across the country, we’ve seen similar pockets of change, some more radical than others. The University of Chicago announced that it would admit only Black-studies scholars into its English Ph.D. program for 2021, citing Black Lives Matter. Similarly, the Rhode Island School of Design said that it would hire ten new faculty members focussed on race, decolonization, and cultural representation—a move that was made possible by an anonymous donation large enough to pay their salaries for the next five years. The California State University system is phasing in a requirement that all students on its twenty-three campuses take at least one ethnic-studies course. The University of Pittsburgh required its first-year students to complete an online course on systemic anti-Black racism in the fall.
Students and faculty nationwide have expressed their unwillingness to continue on as before. They’ve insisted on confronting white power structures directly and challenging the myriad ways in which America’s racial hierarchy is ingrained in academic institutions. In November, about seven hundred and eighty students participated in a two-week strike at Haverford College, in response to what they saw as an insensitive e-mail from the school’s president, Wendy Raymond, who had been serving as the interim chief diversity officer at the time. The e-mail urged students not to participate in protests after police fatally shot Walter Wallace, Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old Uber Eats driver, during a domestic dispute near the college. Students ended their strike after receiving a commitment from college administrators to meet the majority of their demands.
White officials like Raymond aren’t the only ones struggling. In August, after a difficult conversation with Shardé Davis over the future of their movement, Joy Woods announced that she would no longer be associated with #BlackInTheIvory, removing her name from the Web site and Twitter account. Many who had donated funds felt betrayed, vowing to return merchandise purchased on the site. Both the site and the official Twitter handle @BlackintheIvory have been inactive since September.
Still, #BlackInTheIvory lives on, having taken on an identity that is larger than its founders. “The visibility of this hashtag allowed institutions to start to have conversations that people have been begging them to have for years,” Woods told me when I caught up with her in November. “I still get messages from people saying, ‘You gave me courage to finally say something.’ ”
Davis agreed, citing a recent speech she had given about #BlackInTheIvory at the University of Northampton, in England. “For so long we barely talked about racism,” she said. “Now I feel like that’s actually happening. This has opened the door in a really powerful way.”
Kristal Brent Zook is a professor of journalism at Hofstra University and the author of three books, including “Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television.” She is currently writing a family memoir.
More:
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