Large-scale protests have been organized across the country in response to unjust killings, including those of Black women such as Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson and Atatiana Jefferson.
In turn, companies, organizations and institutions have flooded the internet with statements of solidarity, anti-racism rhetoric, and discussions of racial bias and systemic oppression. Using social media to amplify their voices and their experiences, Black men and women across the country courageously began to speak up and speak out about their experiences with institutionalized racism and hatred.
Amid the larger discussion of systemic racism and structural change, the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory, created by Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods, began to spark dialogue on the need for structural change in the academy and the urgent need for a radical restructuring of U.S. higher education. The hashtag, which continues to grow each day, has spotlighted the ways in which 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 bias. These stories, which only scratch the surface of the experiences that Black academics face as they pursue advanced degrees or tenure-track positions, provide an important glimpse into the challenges that U.S. higher education continues to ignore — and highlight the need for institutional change that goes far beyond solidarity statements and diversity declarations.
We wish we could say that some of these stories were new to us. As we read the experiences of those who contributed to #BlackInTheIvory, we were instantly reminded of a recent study we conducted that examined how Black women — more specifically, Black women student leaders — create community at highly selective institutions.
The study, “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.
Our research findings were disheartening while coincidentally empowering. The Black women interviewed were students at a predominantly white, highly selective institution in the Mid-Atlantic, and all were doctoral students. We found that these women felt isolated and alienated, experiencing feelings of exclusion on their campus.
In addition to feeling marginalized, the 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 campus interactions. These experiences caused women to seek refuge and find or create a community that reflected their identity, that understood their language and that allowed them to speak candidly about the racial encounters they faced on an almost daily basis.
“Black women often get left out in larger discussions of systemic racism and oppression.”
One study participant, in describing her experience, said: “Oftentimes it feels like they [the institution] try 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. We were saddened when participants mentioned that the interview with us was the first time they’d been able to share their experiences with someone who would listen.
Black women often get left out in larger discussions of systemic racism and oppression. Their experiences are often pushed to the side, their stories ignored. Although our study has helped us and others better understand the challenges that exist for Black women student leaders — while also providing a more comprehensive account of how these women find or build community — it was not undertaken solely to offer an overview of the challenges that hinder Black women on their paths to academic and professional success.
Our study serves as a call to action. Our intention is to encourage movement, to inspire structural change and to elicit a response. As Black women in academia face challenges that affect their psychological durability — and as they struggle with limited support to navigate daunting, discouraging and disheartening realities within academia — institutional leadership should not sit idly by, waiting for these women to burn out, drop out or worse.
As Black women in academia 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 should 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 positions on systemic racism, 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. We join the women we interviewed in our “Black and Ivy” study in their call for more support for Black women in academia.
We join all of the academics who contributed to the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag; we too are exhausted, and we too have had enough. Finally, we join Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods in their call for structural change. No longer are we asking for reformation — we want a revolution.
This story about institutional support for Black women academics was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Brandy Jones is acting director for programs and communications at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, and Justice and the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University. She recently obtained her M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.