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What Does #BlackInTheIvory Mean? Black Academics Share Stories Of Institutional Racism At Universities And Hospitals

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What Does #BlackInTheIvory Mean? Black Academics Share Stories Of Institutional Racism At Universities

America is having a series of discussions about race at this moment in history. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer has sparked a two-week stretch of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests and prompted moves toward serious reform in policing in some places.

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As the curtain's being pulled back on racism in policy and government, we are also learning more about how institutional racism is a significant problem in other fields as well. This week, Twitter is the platform for an eye-opening conversation about the barriers to success that BIPOC academics have at American universities. Both students and faculty members have been sharing their stories under the hastag #BlackInTheIvory, referring to cliches colleges and universities as "ivory tower" institutions.

The stories are both heartbreaking and infuriating and they illuminate the ways in which our current higher education system is limiting the impact that talented individuals of color could have if they weren't so discouraged. 

What is #BlackInTheIvory?

The hashtag started as a conversation between friends.

Joy Melody Woods is a doctoral student in communications research at the University of Texas at Austin. She was texting about racism at universities with her friend and colleague Shardé M. Davis, an assistant professor in the same field at the University of Connecticut. In particular, Davis was remembering a time a white colleague pontificated that Davis would have no problem getting a job because of her gender and race, as if she needed affirmative action rather than being able to rely on her own skills and experience. The two women realized that their experience couldn't be unique to them and a social media conversation as born. 

“I texted her: I have this hashtag idea, #BlackInTheIvory,” Davis told reporters. “What do you think about that? I think I’m going to use it to share some of my experiences. She responds, saying, ‘Girl, I’ve already used it. I just tweeted it out.’ I was like, wait, I just wanted some feedback!”

The conversation caught fire on Twitter.

Within hours, thousands of Black people in academic fields were sharing their own stories that mirrored the experiences Davis and Woods had had. Black academics talked about everything from advisors who tried to push them out of rigorous fields to top-level academics being the only person of color in their departments. 

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Sometimes the racism is overt.

One Twitter user named Reuben William Horace II, who has a masters degree in public health and is currently studying epidemiology, recalled being singled out by a history instructor, who compared him to slaves. "#BlackintheIvory is when a history teacher brings me in front of the class, closes the door, and says to the class: 'Reuben, you’re a big strong guy, you would have been the perfect slave,'" he tweeted, "I told student admin. They didn’t believe me. Nothing happened to her."

Racism can be explicit.

There are serious barriers to publication for Black scholars.

Getting published is a major requirement for many academics but Black professors tweeting the hashtag talked about having trouble getting their work printed or only being accepted by non-traditional journals. One history professor got the runaround form a publisher just as she was trying to get tenure in her department.

"Having an editor sit on my mss for 5 months, not send it out for review with me coming up for tenure," Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University wrote. "Bad mouthed it to colleagues at my big history conference. Disliked 'my tone.' I was 'a little too graphic with the lynchings." Got a new press. Won book awards."

The book in question is called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and it was a New York Times Bestseller that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

The book was a bestseller once it was finally printed. 

Black faculty are expected to carry the bulk of diversity work.

Some people talked about how being a minority on a college campus means being expected to represent the interests of minorities more widely. The expectation that Black faculty will do the work of expanding diversity on campus means they are doing things that are outside of the academic specialty — and often aren't paid for the extra work that entails.

"Being #BlackintheIvory is being required to do unpaid labor: getting colleagues to recognize their anti-blackness, doing the diversity work bc your program won’t hire diverse faculty, mentoring other POC students," tweeted Dr. Crystal Grant. "Meanwhile your white colleagues get to just focus on their science."

Not all work is paid or recognized. 

The problem isn't just in universities.

Black people going into medicine face institutional racism as well. For decades, medicine was dominated by white men. While that has shifted over the years, some people who hold old school attitudes still resent the diversity of medical school classes now. One medical school made that entirely clear to one of its students, a Black woman who had a student government leadership position.

"When I told my medical school appointed advisor that I was in my second term of being our medical school class president- "It's so hard being a white male in medicine now that they are giving away our leadership spots to people like you," a Twitter user named Maria Uloko MD tweeted

White male entitlement is real. 

How can universities change their culture?

Much as people are now talking about dismantling and reinventing policing, Davis and Woods say there needs to be massive structural change in universities and academics as well. While schools are often very good at paying lip service to racial equality and student bodies can be very diverse, the change needs to happen at the top of the system as well.  

"Some concrete structural changes that could be made include: Having an anti-racist reporting system where all students can anonymously report racist acts happening on campus. Dedicating dollars for fellowships, postdocs, and scholarships for black students," Davis says. "Changing promotion-and-tenure policies to acknowledge the work that many faculty of color do, that goes unnoticed and unpaid, including mentorships, service, and nonacademic publications. Having or hiring more folks of color in upper administrative positions, including presidents, provosts, and deans."

"It’s honestly now the university’s job to figure out what structural change looks like, for their specific community," Davis continued. "And henceforth, they need to compensate us accordingly for the work that they’re likely going to call us to do, to enact structural change. I want my back pay, and I want pay moving forward."

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.