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How social media is helping students of color speak out about racism on campus

Students of color are speaking up about the racial prejudice and scrutiny they encounter in higher education, as part of a national reckoning on racial injustice ignited by the killings of Black Americans like George Floyd by law enforcement and the wave of protests — often led by young people — that followed.

On social media, students are sharing their experiences at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), calling for the end of the implicit and explicit racial biases they face, and demanding accountability from administrators. To some, accountability means sparking discussions about race and the inequalities present in college. For others, it means that students who act in racist ways would face consequences such as suspension, having their Greek organization closed, or even expulsion from the institution.

Thousands of students from colleges and universities with majority white populations have used anonymous Instagram accounts to share their experiences dealing with racism on their respective campuses. Accounts like @dearpwi feature screenshots and videos of students at universities using racial slurs, or engaging in acts of cultural appropriation, such as white college athletes posing as “Mexican” bandits by wearing a sombrero or dressing as a tequila bottle, or posing as “African” men wearing dashikis.

“My family immigrated to the U.S. from an African country […] the professor made jokes to me about how I must be so skinny because in my parent’s country there’s ‘not enough food,’” a student from Haverford College posted on the account.

A student studying at Columbia University posted about often being the only Native American wherever they go. “I’ve always known that in any space I enter, I am oftentimes the first Native American people meet,” the student wrote. “I remember one night eating dinner with a group of friends when one of them said ‘I thought all of your people were dead until I met you.’”

That account alone has more than 190 posts and has amassed 31,000 followers, detailing incidents at nearly 70 universities, including all of the schools in the Ivy League. The @dearpwi account and others, such as various accounts that start with the words “Black at,” are not officially affiliated with any university, and are meant to offer a safe place for those who are dealing with racism in their institutions.

On Twitter, students and professors are using the hashtag #BlackIntheIvory, where they share their successes and their hardships. Users who have embraced the hashtag have shared everything from professional advice, to their thoughts on Black hair and how it often becomes a target of racism.

When students of color face inhospitable or racist environments, they say it makes it more difficult to be themselves. Not only do they have to worry about assignments and grades, but how they’re going to be treated, what resources they will have to be successful and if they’ll be able to fit in.

Thriving academically is challenging without the proper support, which can mean having a faculty that looks like them, or being taught a curriculum that addresses the issues that people of color face daily, students have also said on social media.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, some people of color are vastly underrepresented among professors at American institutions: Black males, Black females, Hispanic males and Hispanic females each accounted for 3 percent of the total. Upon moving to college, Mia Hamernik, a senior at the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, never thought she’d live in a community where everyone else looked different than her. For the California native, who was born to Argentine immigrants, the institution she now calls home is less than 10 percent Latino. Hamernik said her ethnicity and cultural background often leads other students to question her about the color of her skin.

“A student told me it was ‘cool’ that some of my family members were assassinated during the ‘Guerra Sucia,’” said Hamernik. Shocked that a period of state-sponsored violence carried out by the military government would be regarded as “cool,” Hamernik couldn’t help but feel voiceless and unheard among her peers.

“The biggest change I personally experienced was becoming aware of my own identity in the face of countless students who would either ignore my identity or highlight my otherness,” she said.

Maynor Loaisiga, a third-year student, enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine with the hopes of receiving a rigorous education and full academic support. But he quickly realized the faculty at his university were not representative of the diverse student body. Loaisiga, who was born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua, and migrated to the United States at the age of 11, has been speaking out about issues of social and racial justice since his freshman year and is one of the many students across the United States who are using their voices on social media to bring attention to the pains and hurdles they encounter in college.

In early July, Loasiga submitted a post to the Instagram account @dearbowdoin, calling out his institution. “It is shameful that Bowdoin’s largest academic department only has two professors POC’s,” he wrote. “Do better.”

Of the 249 faculty members at Bowdoin College, 17.9 percent are people of color, while students of color make up a third of Bowdown’s student population. According to a 2019 analysis from Pew Research Center, out of all faculty members in the U.S., including adjuncts, 24 percent are non-white. A statement on Bowdoin’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity website says, “Bowdoin is engaged in the deliberate and focused work of identifying where structural racism is embedded in our policies, practices, and everyday operations. We will develop specific plans to address barriers to equity wherever they are found.”

In order to curb feelings of isolation for students of color, inclusivity and diversity must be implemented into college culture and curriculums, said Carole Emberton, author of “Beyond Redemption: Race Violence, and the American South After the Civil War.” Emberton, who teaches the Civil War and the history of race at the University of Buffalo, argues that tough conversations must take place in the classroom even when faculty members are not prepared to face the challenge.

“We have to work on our pedagogical training and our own outlooks to make sure we’re well equipped to handle these kinds of difficult conversations,” Emberton said. “Students are hungry for the tools to understand and to speak about the world we live in.”

The language of diversity and inclusion has also been amplified on social media and in the news media, fostering more conversations about the insidiousness of systemic racism. While fluency in those concepts may not be a cure-all for racism at universities, for some, it is a step closer to dismantling a culture of oppression.

Ralph Tamakloe, a Black student at the University of Pennsylvania studying electrical engineering, said he has faced microaggressions such as being followed around campus by students, to being asked to show his campus ID by campus police, to having his personal belongings searched in a chemistry lab.

While Tamakloe said he tries to forget about these incidents, he can’t help but reflect and think about how different certain scenarios are for students who do not look like him. In his experience, white people do not face the same stereotypes he does and do not have to worry about being followed around campus because they’re suspected of wrongdoing.

He said he felt that school administrators are dismissive of such incidents. In July, he said, the National Society of Black Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania had a meeting with the School of Engineering’s dean, where they addressed microaggressions that are displayed toward Black students at the institution. According to Tamakloe, the dean listened but didn’t promise any fundamental change. He said he felt like he was being gaslighted.

Vijay Kumar, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), said he believes the best way to create an inclusive environment is to change campus behavior rather than punishing individuals who exhibit hurtful behavior, as well as admitting students of color at the same rate as white students.

“The least we can do is to guarantee a level playing field where there’s a rich interaction between students from different” backgrounds, he said about college acceptance rates generally. “We’re not able to do this at this point.”

Kumar said he plans to kick-start a diversity and inclusion campaign this September in which he will individually contact every faculty and staff member to discuss their concerns and possible ideas on how to create an environment that is welcoming for all. The campaign will have mandatory training on anti-racism and unconscious bias for all faculty, staff and students within the engineering school, he added.
Every day when Camille Zubrinsky Charles looks at her personal Instagram account, she reads the anonymous stories students of color posted on @blackivystories. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies and education at UPenn, can feel the pain that some anonymous students express, because she once had similar experiences.

“It breaks my heart that they’re having to go through it, because I can still feel what that feels like,” said Charles, co-author of “Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities.” Charles said she believes as an educator into not avoiding discomfort when it comes to teaching race because it reminds students of why they are in college — to become critical thinkers and to be open to alternative points of view. But faculty members have a responsibility to figure out how to navigate appropriate conversations that create a safe environment for marginalized students who have their college experiences minimized, Charles said: “Students have to be reminded that they’re of equal status by the grown-up in the room.”

For now, Tamakloe feels that social media is the only way to hold people and universities accountable.

“Without these [social media] accounts, I think we would have this mentality that schools are just right when they are not,” Tamakloe said.