Black in the Ivory Tower
In early June, #BlackInTheIvory went viral on Twitter. Created by Shardé M. Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, and Joy Melody Woods, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, the hashtag asked Black scholars “to share their experience with higher ed institutions.” Academics responded in droves, detailing the myriad ways that Black scholars, scholarship, and excellence have been undermined and undervalued. One person described a colleague remarking that “Blacks have lower IQs than whites,” another reported being told that they were “not really Black because [they] are good.” Scholars were told that they were just “diversity hire[s].” One Black woman received a student evaluation alleging she had committed malpractice by presenting race as central to American history and saying she should never teach again.
That hashtag led to others within the academic community, like #Strike4BlackLives and #ShutDownSTEM—efforts in which non-Black scholars were asked to pause their day-to-day work to reflect on ways of addressing anti-Black racism in their fields. These conversations were a part of the larger reckoning with systemic racism prompted by George Floyd’s murder, a movement that has included protests and calls for widespread change in various industries, including policing, publishing, and news media.
The responses to Davis and Woods’s call tell startling tales of unfiltered workplace hostility and racism. But, to me, they are unsurprising—they are the reality of so many professions and institutions. I have told versions of this story myself.
I went to graduate school in large part because of my isolating experiences as a Black woman lawyer on Bay Street—in 2012, I was the only one at my firm, Fasken, which is currently the second largest in the country. To my knowledge, many firms had none. I wanted to understand why, even in the twenty-first century, statistics like this persisted, and I thought academia would offer me answers. I enrolled in a PhD program, at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in the field of organizational behaviour and human resource management. What I did not expect to find was an environment with even fewer Black faces. For much of my time as a PhD student, I was the only Black academic in my entire program. Like many other professional fields, academia does not reflect the diversity of our country. And, for a Black academic, this can lead to a pervasive sense of being out of place.
When Maydianne Andrade, a professor of ecology, vice-dean, and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto, visited Cornell University for her PhD interview in the mid-’90s, she knew she’d be the only Black person in the room. Andrade recalls constant stress over “the feeling that you always stand out, no matter what. People will always remember what you said: you were the person in the room they could identify later.” Alissa Trotz, a professor of Caribbean studies and the director of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, recounts a time at graduate school when she similarly felt like she stood out. During a class in the early ’90s, a leading lecturer used the n-word in reference to an example. “My immediate response was shame. I still don’t know how to make sense of that,” she says. “I was this incandescent light in the room, and I wanted it to shut off.”
Stories like this aren’t hard to find. They’ve been logged in investigations into the experiences of people of colour and Indigenous faculty members; in diversity and equity reports; in scholars having their work ignored or coopted or silenced. I recently participated in a Black graduate student town hall, which asked its seventy-plus attendees if we had ever “observed or experienced racism, aggression or bias” at the university. The numbers were stark: 18 percent had observed them, 17 percent had experienced them, and the remaining 65 percent reported some combination of the two.
In 2020, it shouldn’t take the momentum of a police killing and mass protests to prompt a genuine reckoning with anti-Blackness in academia and other industries. We just have to look at who has a place in the ivory tower and who does not.
in a 1975 talk at Portland State University, Toni Morrison identified distraction as “the very serious function of racism.” According to Morrison, racism “keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” She gives a series of examples—“Somebody says you have no language and so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is”—to show the extra layer of labour put on Black thinkers to constantly prove the value of their work. Her words still ring true, especially for academia.
Before starting my PhD, I expected my school, my department, and the conferences I attended to be overwhelmingly white. But I was surprised to find that this reality also affected my studies. I had entered higher education to explore questions about representation, but I found the subject of race hard to pursue. During that same town hall, when asked if racism, aggression, or bias had caused them to rethink or change their programs, classes, or career plans, 70 percent of participants answered yes.
I was one of them. I had a project I wanted to take on: a series of four studies that would examine whether Black women suffered the same penalties as white women for asserting themselves in the workplace—things like speaking up, seeking power, and exhibiting dominance. Based on various stereotypes of Black femininity, I hypothesized a pattern of results: that Black women would be allowed to speak up and show dominance but would be punished for seeking power. I had done the research and secured the funding. But I was worried that, if I studied race, it would hurt me when I went on the job market. I would be pigeonholed as a Black person who studied Black people and therefore assumed to be too personally invested. Ultimately, I abandoned the work in favour of a study on parenthood and gender—a subject that seemed more marketable and objective, especially when investigated by a childless person.
I’m not the only academic to have felt the pressure to keep race out of my research. In a 2003 Queen’s University report on faculty of colour and Indigenous faculty, one staff member described how, when they had joined the university, they had been “cautioned by a colleague about not publishing too much in the areas of racism and antiracism.” This warning conveyed a distinct message—“that [race] is not a legitimate field of research and that it would not be taken seriously in terms of future promotion and tenure decisions”—and was similar to the fear that rattled around in my own brain. But I still felt like there was no one in the entire business school I could talk to about it.
Trotz’s experiences as a young academic researching the Caribbean were similar. “We are asking questions about places that are not seen as important. There is an additional set of work just to say that it evens matters.” She describes this extra labour as time spent to “clear the space” before getting to work at all—the very distraction that Morrison spoke of.
During a faculty meeting to talk about racism, Andrade asked the same poll questions about changing one’s academic focus. The departmental results—from a much whiter group—were far lower than those from the town hall. “Seeing that 70 percent [of town hall participants] had changed their classes or career plans or their major because of racism,” she says of her department, “it kind of struck them dumb.”
There were many times, even well into the writing of my dissertation, that I wanted to quit my project and go back to my original idea, but sunk costs prevailed. I chose not to pursue an academic job after graduating, but I sometimes wonder if I might have been keener on it if I’d focused on the work I truly cared about. The original idea had thrilled me in a way that my eventual dissertation didn’t. I wanted to know more about what it meant to be a Black woman seeking power in the workplace. I still do. Would the results have inspired me to pursue further research and teaching? The decision to move away from that project is, and always will be, the biggest regret of my academic career.
A recent study on the link between diversity and innovation found that scientists from underrepresented groups can produce work at a higher rate of novelty, measured by the number of new links generated between existing ideas. What often happens, though, is that their novel contributions are “devalued and discounted” and are less likely to garner them academic positions and successful careers. As a result, they leave the field before the fruits of their creativity and labour can be realized. This is the kind of excellence we are failing to reward and the kind we repeatedly lose.
We need to remove the barriers to entry along the academic chain. It’s not just hiring practices—it’s eradicating the bias against fields of study seen as “less legitimate,” like work that centres the experiences of racialized people. It’s making sure that academics from underrepresented groups have the support they need to pursue their projects—and, moreover, that they are not forced to constantly prove their work’s value.
Sidelining the work of Black and Indigenous academics does more than limit academic research and social advancement. I ask Trotz what she thinks we lose when only a narrow subset of ideas and topics are seen as worthy, or when we ask questions about only particular segments of our society. Her answer is simple and immediate: “Everything.”