“If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”― Zora Neale Hurston
In 2020, large-scale protests were being organized across the country in response to the unjust murders of Breonna Taylor. Breonna Taylor’s story was yet another story of Black women and girls who succumbed to excessive force, unjust treatment, and ultimately, death at the hands of the police: Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, and countless others. Breonna’s story prompted many companies, organizations, and institutions to flood the internet with statements of solidarity, anti-racism rhetoric, and discussions of racial bias and systemic oppression.
The tragic reality is that since 2020, there have been numerous instances of Black women being killed by police, sparking a renewed conversation around systemic racism and police brutality. The April 2021 killing of Daunte Wright and the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, both at the hands of police officers, have ignited new waves of protests and calls for reform. Additionally, the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant that occurred in April 2021 in Columbus, Ohio, where she was fatally shot by a police officer who responded to a call regarding a disturbance, has further fuelled the conversation around the excessive use of force by [police] towards Black women. These incidents highlight the fact that systemic racism and police brutality pervade various corners of our society, including higher education where Black women may feel particularly vulnerable. Recent incidents of harassment within higher education, such as the case of Kylah Spring, who was subjected to racial slurs and aggression by her white peers, highlight the fact that Black women in education face multiple intersecting forms of oppression. It is vital to recognize that these injustices are not isolated cases but instead emblematic of deeper systemic issues that require attention and intervention by both individuals and institutions. It is evident that more needs to be done to address these issues and work towards a more equitable and just society.
Following the murder of Breonna Taylor, Black men and women across the country used social media to amplify their voices and their experiences, courageously speaking up and speaking out about their experiences with institutionalized racism and anti-Blackness. Amidst the larger discussion on systemic racism and structural change, the hashtag #BlackintheIvory, began to spark dialogue on the need for structural change in the academy and the urgent need for a radical restructuring of higher education. The hashtag, which continues to grow each day and has turned into an independent Twitter account, has spotlighted the ways academia has persistently excluded and alienated Black academics (at all levels; across all genders). Contributors have shared horrific stories of navigating microaggressions, disheartening tales of interacting with faculty members and advisors, and painful narratives of blatant anti-Blackness. These stories, which only scratch the surface of the experiences Black academics face as they pursue advanced degrees or tenure-track positions provide an important glimpse into the challenges that higher education continues to ignore and highlights the necessity for revolutionary institutional change that goes far beyond solidarity statements and diversity declarations.
We wish we could say that some of these stories were new to hear. As we recap the experiences of those who contributed to #BlackintheIvory, we are instantly reminded of a study we conducted that examined how Black women, more specifically, Black women student leaders, create community at highly-selective institutions. The study, titled, “Black and Ivy: How Black female student leaders create community and inclusion at an Ivy League institution” sought to offer a holistic portrait of how Black women student leaders navigate academic spaces and create community on campus while holding positions of leadership. The findings of the research were disheartening while coincidentally empowering. The Black women interviewed were students of a predominantly White highly-selective institution in the Mid-Atlantic, and all were doctoral students. Findings from the study revealed that these women felt isolated, alienated, and experienced feelings of exclusion on their campus. In addition to feeling marginalized, women in our study shared how transitioning to a highly-selective institution created unprecedented self-doubt, a lack of confidence in one’s abilities, and challenges related to dealing with stereotype threat and imposter syndrome instigated by interactions on campus. These experiences caused women to develop radical navigational coping strategies such as seeking refuge and finding and/or creating a community that reflected their identity, understood their language, and allowed them to speak candidly about the gendered racism they faced on a daily basis. These communal spaces were formed and sustained by Black women, for Black women. These informal communities have historically acted as sites for reclaiming our humanity, harboring Black joy, and finding restoration within anti-Black academic spaces.
One study participant describing her experience said, “Oftentimes it feels like they [ the institution] tries to bury us [Black women], but the irony is we were seeds, and as we build community amongst ourselves, we grow.” As researchers we listened as Black women bravely professed their agony and discomfort in the academy and were saddened when the participants mentioned that the interview was the first time they’d been able to share their experiences with someone who would listen.
Black women get left out in larger discussions on systemic racism and oppression. Their experiences are often dismissed and their stories ignored. Although “Black & Ivy” was incredibly integral in better understanding the challenges that exist for Black women student leaders who pursue doctoral degrees, and providing a more comprehensive account of how these women find or build community, the study was not developed solely to offer an overview of the challenges that hinder Black women on their path to academic and professional success. This study serves as a call to action. Our intention is to encourage movement, inspire structural change, and elicit a response. As Black women in the academy face challenges that impact their psychological durability and as they struggle with limited support to navigate their daunting, discouraging, and disheartening realities within academia, institutional leadership should not sit idle waiting for these women to burn out, drop out, or worse. As Black women in the academy attempt to independently combat their dual oppression, and as they are tokenized in spaces where they are the only person who looks like them, institutions must work to make spaces, allocate money, personnel, and resources, and create programs designed to reduce the unique challenges these students face in the academy.
As institutions proudly state their position on systemic racism and as graduate programs continue to enroll Black women within their departments to signify, sometimes performatively, their commitment to inclusion, they cannot do so without listening, believing, and validating the experiences of Black academics. Institutions must be held accountable for how they are failing Black academics, and Black women academics, in particular. Doctoral programs must demonstrate through their actions their commitment to the well-being of Black women. We join the women we interviewed in our Black and Ivy study in their call for more support for Black women academics. We join all of the academics who contributed to the #BlackintheIvory hashtag and those who continue to speak out about the anti-Blackness they encounter daily in the academy; we too are exhausted and we too have had enough. Finally, we join Black women within academia in their call for structural change, no longer are we asking for reformation; we want a revolution.
Brandy Jones is a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. You can follow her on Twitter @Brandy__Jones
Dr. Janelle L. West is an Interim Dean at Widener University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @SincerelyDrJae