The Intersection of Black & Brilliant: proFile of Raven Cokley
Like many people out there, I’ve become a bit of a Twitter cynic. On the one hand, it can be a great way to build a network of like-minded professionals, and it offers a platform for those whose voices don’t often get heard. But on the other, it’s rife with trolling and negativity (and, of course, Russian bots). Though I’ve made connections through the platform, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it.
Enter Raven Cokley – twitter handle @BrilliantBlkGrl – a PhD Candidate in Counselor Education at the University of Georgia and the founder of Brilliant Black Girl, Inc., an organization that provides “emotional, academic and financial support to high-achieving black girls and women from lower-income families.” I came across her popular Twitter account while looking to connect with dynamic women in higher ed – and intrigued by Cokley’s mission, I reached out for an interview. Not only did I come away inspired and impressed, she even gave me hope for the medium that brought us together.
“As an introverted Black girl, it is really hard for me to make friends in person,” Cokley explains when I ask what inspired her to use Twitter. “I am always in my head, I am always analyzing, I am always trying to figure out the situation and wondering what people are thinking of me. What Twitter allows me to do is to engage with people without the social anxiety piece as I am navigating these spaces of whiteness in higher education. Twitter allows me to reach out to Black women from all over who are enduring the same struggle that I am.” Using hashtags like #BrilliantBlackGirl, #BlkGradLife, #CiteASista, and #SisterPhD, Cokley has been able to connect with a community of Black women in higher education who may sometimes feel isolated in their experiences. “We have made some really strong bonds,” she says. “#BlkGradLife is a communal way of healing, uplifting.”
Cokley didn’t always have such a strong network to rely upon. As a young girl, she was academically talented, but fitting in was difficult. As the only Black student in the International Baccalaureate program of her Florida high school, she experienced what she calls “racialized bullying,” the result of “being both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time.” Cokley felt caught between two different worlds – her own Black community and this “space of whiteness” – not quite belonging in either.
“The societal messages for me,” she says, “were ‘how dare you be Black and gifted?’ It was almost like you can’t be gifted academically because you are Black, and Black people aren’t smart. But on the other side, you can’t really be Black if you are smart and in class with all of these white kids. So, I lived at the intersection of being both Black and brilliant. I have spent the majority of my life combating these racial stereotypes and myths about Black people and our brilliance.”
Despite her challenges, Cokley continued to pursue her academic passions, completing a BA in psychology at the University of Central Florida and MEd from the University of Georgia before beginning her PhD. Her current research focuses on Black women in higher education and giftedness in Black girls. She is motivated to explore the experiences of gifted Black women and girls with the hope of building bridges between early childhood, secondary and higher education through the public school system. Cokley is still conceptualizing her research project, which will involve conducting an autoethnography or her own experience in education.
Even in her graduate studies, one thing that continues to frustrate Cokley is the lack of women of Color in positions of leadership within academia. A lack of mentors and role models, she says, is one of things that prompted her to seek out a support network on Twitter. “I believe that you have to see someone doing what it is you want to do,” she explains. “I feel that not having any Black women faculty in my program has left me to figure things out on my own. That’s why all of these networks are so necessary for me. I am having to navigate as I go.”
Through both Twitter and her work with Brilliant Black Girl, Inc., Cokley emphasizes increasing the visibility of Black women in academia. This also means giving them the credit they deserve, by promoting and citing their ideas. At UGA, Cokley is a member of a supportive “sister scholar network” of Black women, and two of her fellow colleagues started a movement called #citeasista, which aims to draw attention to Black women’s research and labor. “The work starts with hiring Black women and citing Black women,” she says. “We cannot continue to censor the voices of Black women. It is problematic when concepts that Black women have been developing and publishing forever do not gain any validity until a white woman says it.”
Despite being an introvert, Cokley believes in making waves, vocally resisting racism and inequity and doing what it takes to pave the way for future generations of brilliant Black girls. “We have to start somewhere,” she says. “The awareness is necessary. A heightened consciousness can then follow.”
And to young Black women and girls hoping to make their own way in academia, she offers some words of advice and encouragement. “I would say to Black girls and Black women that their existence is not a myth. It is not a mistake. We deserve to be here,” she says. “Existing, resisting, surviving at the table is what you are already doing. You inherently have what you need to be here and to make the change you wish to make. So continue to sit at the table, or if the table doesn’t exist, bring your own or build your own.”