Two women in denim shirts smile at the camera.

Shardé Davis (left) and Joy Melody Woods founded the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory.Credit: Shardé Davis; Joy Melody Woods

Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods started the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory because they were friends, because they were two Black women in communications research, because a week of protests had left them grieving and because they were ready to expose some of the ways that they had experienced racism in their own fields.

Others were ready, too. Over the weekend, as marches continued worldwide in protest against the deaths of Black people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in encounters with police, scores of Black scientists candidly described times when colleagues and institutions had been hostile, insulting or made them feel unwelcome, and had made it difficult for them to simply do their jobs.

The stories shocked some, who said their eyes had been newly opened to the difficulties that their Black colleagues faced. Some said they were motivated to improve; some decided to #Strike4BlackLives and #ShutDownSTEM on 10 June, pausing their usual academic work to reflect and to plan how to fight anti-Black racism. As of 11 June, more than 5,750 accounts on Twitter had used the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag.

Nature spoke to Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs, and Woods, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, about how #BlackInTheIvory — which refers to the ‘ivory tower’ metaphor often used to describe academia’s elite institutions, which also are disproportionately white — started and why they decided to speak out.

How did you come up with #BlackInTheIvory?

Shardé Davis: I was using it just to string together my own reflections of being Black in the academy. Joy and I were both on Twitter. I texted her and I was like, “I’m actually thinking about sharing some of my own experiences with this hashtag. What do you say?” Joy responds with, “Girl, I’ve already tweeted it out.”

I did not create it thinking other people would pick it up and use it. I never thought that would happen. And we woke up on Sunday to a brewing firestorm.

What’s your impression so far?

SD: I will say surprised, but at the same time, not. This conversation on Black identity is long overdue. As “Black-ademics,” we’re often the only one. So when these racist acts happen, whether it’s covert or overt, it’s very easy to think, “Gosh, I must have done something wrong.” But when you have this, when you share your experience, you’re able to see that other people have gone through the exact same things. So that means it’s not an ‘us’ problem, it’s a system problem. Folks are angry right now, Black folks are fed up, and we just provided the outlet for them to let loose.

Did you worry about repercussions?

Joy Melody Woods: This is a very real question and true, true concern. A lot of times, the people who are doing these actions are powerful people, they’re big names in a certain discipline or on campus. But how I look at it, if I call someone out for what they’ve done that is abuse — racial abuse — and then I’m not welcome in that space any more, then I don’t want to be in that space. Because that means that that space is only doing lip service when they say, “We’re dedicated to diversity, dedicated to inclusion, and we’re dedicated to change.” Change comes when you name what you need to change.

SD: I’m on the tenure track, an assistant professor. You have many junior faculty members, across races, who are told to be quiet. You’re not supposed to be a rabble rouser. You’re not supposed to speak up because people can retaliate and use that against you when it comes time to go up for tenure. And there are many other people on that Twitter thread, who were sharing, who were in a similar position.

What made it the right time?

JMW: We’re in a catalytic moment where universities want to be on the right side of history due to what happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all the countless names that I don’t even have the stomach to say today. They want to be on the right side of it, because the people who are protesting in the street, they’re calling for major changes, radical change. And so are we.

What do you say to people who ask why representation matters in science?

SD: Thinking about Black intellectuals, scholars, academics, we are way less than 10% of US academics. I’m going to feel comfortable and say around 5% . That is not because we don’t have the kind of scholarly or intellectual aptitude to be able to get these degrees and to be able to do this work. It is because of systemic racism that has created barriers for us to be able to enter into programmes, finish programmes, get into tenure-track positions and earn tenure — significant barriers.

That 5% actually has the ability to be 15%, 20% — there is an opportunity for us to be able to truly diversify the professors, diversify the academy. But the only way for us to do that, it’s not on Black people, it’s on the system. And when we have a more diversified university, that means that we have more diversified individuals, who then are doing research from their lens. Which then is going to reshape what research looks like, what research gets produced, which then means that we have a greater ability to be able to change our legislation, our policies, how we are informing social relationships and the like.

Can I ask why you both linked to the mobile-payment service Venmo at one point?

JMW: We’re not doing free labour any more, period. Black scholars as a whole, but really Black women, are always caught doing other mothering, other labouring. Other, other, other, other — doing all these things that are not in the job description but are expected. And they’re not paid for it, especially when it comes to work for diversity. And so we saw that this hashtag was taking off, and then white people and non-Black people were like, “Everyone come look at this. This is such awesome work, come look, come learn.” We’re putting out labour and being vulnerable and telling our stories. So if you are so grateful, pay us. Black people are fed up with fixing problems without being paid for the work that we’re doing.

SD: It’s a symbolic gesture. It’s not even just about the money. It is, as Joy said, how much time and energy I have expended out of my own life, away from my research, away from my mental health, my physical health, my family, to do this work. And I’ve done this work; oftentimes it’s gone unrecognized. It has gone uncompensated, and it has been exploited by the very entity, the university, that then turns around and is oppressive! How does that happen?

JMW: And what I end up doing is I turn around and give the money to a bail fund, and give it right back.

White colleagues often ask what they can do to help. Has this changed how they reach out?

JMW: There’s thousands of tweets with this hashtag — that’s thousands of different instances or retweets or whatever of people’s experiences, Black students’ experiences, with the white-supremacist system. And the reaching out has now become, “Okay, wow, I might have been complicit in this. I’ve got to change it.” And so I think there’s now a tone of change, because it’s so glaring.

SD: This is not just about police, right? Because the police are the branch. The root is systemic racism. There are many other branches on that tree, where systemic racism rears its ugly head, and I want Americans to see, “Oh, wow, that’s another one. Wow.” So then their mind will start to think critically, to say: “Well, what else is out there? What other institutions need to be completely uprooted?”