Graduate Students

When a Grad Student Called on Black Academics to Vent, Hundreds Answered

October 26, 2016

William Richardson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern U., asked people on Twitter to share his tweet if they’d ever "considered throwing hands w/ a white student/prof for saying some wild racist stuff in class." His inbox exploded.
For minority students and scholars, working in academe can be isolating and frustrating, especially when they feel like there’s no place to talk about the issues they face.

To give a voice to those frustrations, William J. Richardson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, started a Twitter campaign calling on other academics to share examples of racism in the academy.

The campaign’s hashtag, #TheseAcademicHands, made its debut on Sunday night — and comes from the phrase "throwing hands," which is slang for fighting. The phrase also suggests a sense of frustration, as in throwing your hands up in the air.

The initial tweet prompted a slew of responses detailing such things as racist comments from other students and microaggressions toward black faculty. The responses were collected into a "Moment," a feature Twitter typically reserves for large news events.

Mr. Richardson spoke to The Chronicle on Tuesday about starting the hashtag and where he thinks the conversation is going. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Minority professors and academics have expressed feelings of being marginalized for some time. What made you start the hashtag earlier this week?

A. The tweet itself was more or less one of those moments where you as an individual have feelings about something and you kind of just want to get confirmation with other people who felt the same way. In some ways it was supposed to be kind of a joke for black academic Twitter, college student Twitter, and lo and behold, lots of other people felt the same way.

You see the anger people have about, honestly, them having to be silent in the face of a lot of the stuff they have to experience in higher education. And the fact that nobody is really being held accountable for any of this behavior one way or the other.

Q. Do you have a specific example where you experienced having to be silent?

A. I’m atypical and typical in this conversation.

Typical in the sense that as a black student, I’ve seen and experienced lots of especially passive-aggressive racism that they themselves might not even realize is a problem.

Luckily for me as a cis, straight, black man in academia I also occupy this kind of token position where a lot of the more open and basically verbally or physically violent stuff that happens to other students in less-privileged positions doesn’t really happen to me.

Q. Why do you think it’s important to be vocal about times when minority professors and students feel marginalized?

A. To me it’s very simple. My dad has this saying, "Quiet mouse don’t get fed." One of the things that maintains systems of oppression, regardless of what they are across history, is the silence of people who are being oppressed. And while you don’t say anything nobody has to acknowledge that there is a problem, and therefore they are not responsible to do anything.

Being verbal on the very basic level is a requirement for any kind of progress. Because if you wait on privileged people to pay attention to what you’re going through you’re never going to be taken care of. They have no reason to step outside their own bubble to see how their behavior, other people’s behavior, or the structure impacts people less privileged than them.

Q. What can colleges do about some of these microaggressions that minority students and instructors face?

A. That’s something I’ve thought about for a while. There’s lots of little reforms you can do like hiring more minority professors or doing training and something you see has some impact. But unfortunately, at its core, academia, just like the rest of the scientific, intellectual space in the West is really built on top of white supremacy and colonialism. In that sense, the racism in academia is kind of endemic to it.

Changing it is one of those tasks that’s never a couple policy suggestions or a couple reforms. It really has to be a whole filled chain, along with the rest of society, of how we think about people of color. Honestly, academe is no different from the rest of society.

Although academics think they are above and beyond, especially social scientists, the social aspects of people they study, they really aren’t. You can go on Twitter every day and see examples of white academics or stories from people and even sometimes tweets directly from white academics, male academics, and cis academics doing things you would not expect people in academe to do.

In a sense, these problems in academe are the same as these problems that are happening in the streets between black and white people and in any other space. You need to apply the same logic and amount that we would outside of our privileged ivory tower.

Q. Right now the hashtag is serving people who want to vent, but what’s the next step? Do you want them to speak out?

A. That’s really up to people to decide. I can’t speak for the concerns of high-school students, college students. I don’t feel comfortable speaking for them or black faculty, people of color, faculty members, but I’d say for grad students at least, really the what’s next, at least for me, is writing on these things. I study settler colonialism and white supremacy so I’m very comfortable having those conversations in the open and continuing that.

But I know for other students, they don’t have that space. They’re isolated in the department or they’re in an environment that’s just not conducive to it. At this point, I think the next step is really for people to think critically about where they’re at, what’s going on. Are there ways to find solidarity, or find spaces to heal or at least keep my sanity?

At the end of the day, the only thing that I can hope out of any of this is that this hashtag conversation or at least the original tweet and the conversation that comes out of it, helps people keep their sanity by knowing: "Hey, you’re not crazy. There’s other people who think this."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.