On a Saturday night in early June, Shard 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 fellowshipplans 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 couldnt 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 protestthe crowd had been mostly white and Latinx, she said, but the media made it seem as though Black folks were the ones destroying propertyshe 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 youre sure you can handle it, many said, or being asked on campus if youre in the right place or lost. #BlackInTheIvory is having campus security constantly ask for your research-lab badge, residence-hall identification, and/or drivers 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 ones 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.
Youre 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 masters 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 didnt belong, that she wasnt smart enough. One professor told her directly that she didnt 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.
Toward the end of her first semester, Woods tried reporting one faculty member to the universitys Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, but the complaint went nowhere. Its hard to prove microaggressions, she said. Thats why we think were going crazy.
In Woodss 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 didnt 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 masters 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 bachelors 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 wouldnt 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 ones 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 wasnt 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. Ill call her Mary. She shifted in her seat as though biting her tongue.
Its just that Im 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 thats when she hit me with it. So... I dont 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 dont 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 didnt 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 Anzalda 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 womens-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.
Im putting together another anthology, Gloria told me one day, and I was wondering if you have any essays or poems youd like to contribute? She did that thing which is so often missing from our lives as Black scholars and academics. Nurturing.
It doesnt have to be polished. Just send me what you have. My essay, which I called Light-Skinnedded 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 bluewhich 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-hmms 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 dont 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... Im just another Black woman gone. I wouldnt 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.
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