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Sami Schalk, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told in a tweet of being often confused with another black woman faculty member at SUNY Albany. Credit: Photo courtesy Sami Schalk

Sometimes racism can be subtle, so covert that if you blink too fast you don’t see it. Or, you can pretend you didn’t see it. Sami Schalk, who is black, said several of her colleagues in the English department at the State University of New York at Albany didn’t appear to see how constantly confusing her with another black colleague was problematic, even though her colleague had started working in the department years before her and did not resemble her.

One incident was especially egregious.

Schalk’s black colleague’s fiancé suddenly died, and everyone, including Schalk, signed a card to share their condolences. “A week later it showed up at my house with my name and address on the outside envelope,” Schalk said in a telephone interview.

Schalk, now an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tweeted a version of this story with the hashtag #BlackintheIvory. Last weekend, students and professors started tweeting painful stories about fighting an uphill battle in the academy, initially under the hashtag #BlackIntheIvory, begun by two scholars who urged other black people in academia to share their experiences. At a moment when people are marching in cities across the U.S. to demand a reformed and equitable criminal justice system, many professors and students are showing that inequality also exists in other corners of the country.

“I feel like what’s going on with this hashtag and what people are sharing is that structural change will come, because it’s a lot of people at a lot of different places across the country.”

Joy Melody Woods, doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin, who co-founded the hashtag #BlacksIntheIvory

“There are other institutions, like academia, where harm is also being done to black people,” said Shardé Davis, a cofounder of the hashtag and an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut. “And the common root is systemic racism.”

There were more than 86,000 tweets about this topic between Saturday and Monday, said Joy Melody Woods, the other cofounder, who is a Ph.D. student in communication studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

Related: After colleges promised to increase it, hiring of black faculty declined

Shardé Davis, left, and Joy Melody Woods created the hashtag #BlackIntheIvory. Credit: Photo courtesy Joy Melody Woods

“I want structural change everywhere,” said Woods. “I feel like what’s going on with this hashtag and what people are sharing is that structural change will come, because it’s a lot of people at a lot of different places across the country.”

Many of the stories are cringeworthy.

Biosha Jones tweeted “ ‘Why would your momma name you something like that?’ *laughs* ‘What was that name again?’ ”

When Jones was an undergraduate participating in a summer program for aspiring medical students, a faculty member involved in the program made that comment to her. Speaking up about these microaggressions and covert forms of bias and racism can be difficult as a black person who is trying to excel.

“I didn’t want to be labeled as the angry black woman for speaking up,” said Jones, who graduated from McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas in May.

Other tweets tell stories of a black professional being confused with custodial staff, a black student being told the only reason she received a medical school scholarship was because she was black and a black professor who had someone physically block her from getting her mail and threaten to call the police, even though she had her faculty I.D. with her.

Some of the stories, however, are uplifting. Twitter user @ProfRucker tweeted “1st black economist tenured @ UC-Berkeley, 2011; making sure not the last.” And @deedledee90 is using the hashtag to learn: “I am educating myself and developing a plan to make sure that I am approaching all angles of my academic and professional career with equity in mind. I hope you will too.”

Having seen the outpouring of responses to the #BlackIntheIvory hashtag, Woods and Davis started a Google spreadsheet to encourage donations to support financially needy black graduate students – but so many people signed on (more than 350, Davis said) that it has been temporarily closed.

Woods and Davis said they want the movement continue to evolve organically

“We’re just happy that we’re able to provide a space for us,” said Davis.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

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