UT doctoral student creates viral hashtag uncovering stories of discrimination in higher-ed institutions

Lauren Goodman

Joy Melody Woods, a communication studies doctoral student, woke up early June 7 to realize that the hashtag she and her friend Shardé Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut, created the night before was trending on social media. 

The hashtag, #BlackInTheIvory, sparked what Woods said was an overwhelming response as Black scholars shared personal stories of discrimination at higher-ed, predominantly white institutions. The hashtag was one of many that began trending as people took to social media to express stories of racial injustice energized by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Since then, posts and mentions containing #BlackInTheIvory have reached over 400,000 users, according to Twitter and Instagram Business data. 

“As Black women and Black people in general … we have a different experience when we're in the higher-ed system,” Woods said. “There's less of us, so we have to seek each other out for community. It was this common thread … that we saw when it came out that it wasn't just us that were having this experience.”

Woods said responses to the hashtag were validating since she now had a community to reach out to that had similar stories to her own.

“Some of my experiences that I went through, personally, I felt like I was alone,” Woods said. “But when you go and look at the stories of people, you're like, ‘Wow, this is happening. The same exact thing is happening at institutions across the country.’”

Kevin Cokley, a professor of African and African Diaspora studies and educational psychology, said he used the hashtag in several tweets after he realized he had a lot to say from his experience of being a professor for over 20 years.

“For so many Black academics, we sometimes push things in the recesses of our consciousness,” Cokley said. “But the more that I started to think about my experiences, … I began to recall incidents or experiences that I had not thought about in a while.”

In one of his tweets, Cokley referenced one of his most recent achievements of being the first and only Black member of The University of Texas System Academy of Distinguished Teachers. The UT System is made up of 21,000 faculty among 14 higher-ed institutions, according to their website.

“On the one hand, I guess you could say that it's positive in a sense … but it's also a sad commentary that I remain the only one in 2020,” Cokley said. “It shouldn't be in 2020 I’m the only Black member in that prestigious group.”

Although hashtag activism is criticized as a passive form of political engagement,  journalism professor S. Craig Watkins said it can mobilize people into real-world action.

“It's easy to dismiss (hashtag activism) as a waste of time,” Watkins said. “What we're beginning to see is that it can have a rather crazy impact. (Hashtags) create an identity for a movement, which then gives more of an opportunity to attract followers who then become mobilized, energized and active to that particular issue.”

Woods said it's been interesting seeing predominately white institutions jump on the bandwagon of solidarity posts as it doesn’t align with past actions. Because of the hashtag’s popularity, Woods said more people will be looking to see what they do next.

“We'll be holding these institutions — feet to the fire — for like, ‘Okay, you made that post. We want to see change and here's how we can do it,’” Woods said.