When a Hashtag Sparks More Than Dialogue

Black students at University of Michigan kicked off a social media conversation last fall which has morphed into a campaign to win concrete changes on campus.

By Julianne Hing Feb 14, 2014

A student-led social media effort to generate conversation about what it’s like to be a black student at University of Michigan has morphed into an organizing effort to win concrete changes on campus. And it’s moving. 

Students from the university’s Black Student Union kicked off a social media conversation centered around the hashtag #BBUM–Being Black at Michigan–last fall.It triggered an outpouring from students and alumni which got the hashtag trending on Twitter. A sampling: 

The original goal was to have a public conversation about what it’s like to be black in an increasingly stratified, and racially segregated higher education ecosystem. But it didn’t end there. Spurred on by the outpouring of dialogue the hashtag triggered, the BSU began using the hashtag as an organizing tool, then returned to the university in the new year with seven demands to improve the campus climate. 

On Tuesday, as a direct result of the hashtag-driven campaign, the university’s student government passed a resolution to support the seven demands put forth by the BSU, and student activism efforts to increase student-of-color enrollment at the university, including the creation of a scholarship for undocumented students, the Michigan Daily reported. Administrators have agreed to set aside $300,000 to renovate the campus multicultural center, according to Rick Fitzgerald, the associate director of public affairs for the university. 

Movement on some student demands has been easier than others, though. The BSU also called for an increase in black enrollment rates at the University of Michigan to 10 percent of the student body, which the university is legally barred from carrying out. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that using racial quotas in higher education admission violates the Equal Protection Clause. 

"It’s a continuing conversation," said Fitzgerald. "My understanding is that upon a deeper understanding of what student concerns were, they are continuing to have discussions about what the university may or can and cannot do." Still, Fitzgerald says, "My understanding is groups continue to believe the discussions are productive and worth continuing."

Meanwhile online, the conversation is still going, unified by the hashtag #BBUM. "What’s happening is we’re bonding the experiences of students–not just blacks but other marginalized communities at the University of Michigan–and helping that dictate our work with the administration," says Robert Greenfield IV, BSU’s treasurer and a third year undergraduate. 

When the BSU launched the hashtag last fall, students from other campuses, including the rival Michigan State University, picked it up and and adapted it for their own schools, the Michigan Daily reported. NPR reporter Michele Norris, who was the University of Michigan’s Winter 2013 commencement speaker, helped amplify students’ voices by retweeting it. 

The conversation comes amidst a recent outpouring of dialogue about what it’s like to be a black student in elite and intensely stratified educational environments. Last fall black undergrads from UCLA pointed out that the university has more NCAA championships than black male freshmen and that the majority of black male students were in fact athletes. Documentaries like "American Promise" and "Prep School Negro" have examined the everyday hardships and deep psychological toll of being black in overwhelmingly white elite school settings. And this week black students at UCLA Law School released a video of their own, covering parallel themes. The constant takeaway? It’s a fraught, often exhausting experience.

For Greenfield, it’s the everyday acts of subtle microaggression which stay with him. As an engineering major, Greenfield says his classmates assume he’ll be the weak link in their group projects, and so he’s typically given easier work. "Or they triple-check what you did in particular as opposed to what other students did," he says. "It’s kind of like an intellectual superiority imposed on students of color."

Just recently Greenfield says, "We were doing anthropometric measurements in lab. One of the tests we had to do was measuring a person’s grip and my grip scored higher than others. People said, ‘Oh, it’s just because you’re black.’"

It’s not just these seemingly minor microaggressions. In universities across the country acts of flagrant campus racism and harassment still abound. From campus parties with students showing up in blackface all over the country; to nooses left on campus at the University of California San Diego; to students tormenting black roommates at San Jose State University; to a "whites-only" sign being taped above a water fountain at Oberlin College, college can very often be a hostile environment for black students and other students of color. 

The campus’s lack of racial diversity aggravates the campus climate, students have said. University of Michigan’s incoming fall class was 5.1 percent black–much lower than racial demographics in the rest of the state, where blacks make up 14.3 percent of the population. Black enrollment at the school has dipped 30 percent since Michigan voters passed Proposal 2, a 2006 ballot initiative that blocked race-conscious admissions at the school. Proposal 2 is the subject of a current Supreme Court challenge. Greenfield says going to school in the shadow of so many past challenges to affirmative action and active Supreme Court cases adds another layer to the student experience. 

"We need to challenge the idea that the only black kids qualified to be here are the ones who are already enrolled," Greenfield says. "It’s not a matter of lowering standards but making an active attempt to target students who are from different backgrounds."