When Kimberly Diei hit send on her tweets, she never imagined they’d lead to her near-expulsion from her university.
The posts weren’t bigoted. They weren’t homophobic. They weren’t perpetuating fake news or pseudoscience. In fact, the tweets used against her were based on popular song lyrics from Beyoncé and Cardi B/Megan Thee Stallion. What’s more, these tweets were sent off-campus, from her personal account.
So, how did this 27-year-old doctoral candidate’s social media activity even get on the radar of her school, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Pharmacy in Memphis? Diei was told an anonymous complaint had been filed. And, she reveals, this entire debacle was merely the latest in a string of attempts to target her and push her out of the program, since she enrolled in 2019.
“I had been very vocal in class. Whatever we were discussing, whatever content was displayed, I was asking questions; I was engaging with the material,” Diei tells Sexual + Being. “And that pissed my classmates off to witness Black excellence in its entirety right off the bat. I had been targeted, bullied, and harassed into being quiet.”
Not only was Diei subjected to “nasty” comments and disruptive noises when she dared speak up during instructional time, but she was also taunted in the class’s Facebook group and so frequently complained about that even the “higher-ups” on campus believed her to be obnoxious. Because of this, practically no one in her program wanted anything to do with her.
While the isolation has admittedly been hurtful, it hasn’t stopped Diei from continuing to pursue her degree. She believes that the fact that she has nevertheless persisted hasn’t sat well with her peers, and she feels “someone decided, ‘Oh, we have to do something to bring her down.’”
At first, it was an Instagram post back in 2019. An anonymous report against her IG account was filed with the school, and Diei was brought before the Professional Conduct Committee. They gave her a warning and told her that her posts were inappropriate. But, according to Diei, the committee never gave an explanation as to what made them so. Following that first meeting with the board, Diei was required to write a letter of reflection on her actions, which she reluctantly did, believing the whole ordeal would finally be over.
But later in the year, Diei was informed of another anonymous report made against her. She brushed it off and kept things moving. Come 2020, yet another complaint. This time, she decided to fight back. “I asked several times, ‘Where’s the evidence? How was it obtained? What are the guidelines that you’re speaking of? What are the policies? And in what way did I violate those policies?’” she says. Their response? To show her the aforementioned tweets with zero explanation. “[Specific evidence] was never presented to me,” Diei says. “At one point, it was told to me that, ‘Well, yeah, this might just be our opinion, but it’s a valid opinion that this is inappropriate.’”
Diei’s story fits into a larger pattern of societal misogyny. As recently as January, Chloe Bailey — the 22-year-old half of singing sister duo Chloe x Halle — faced condemnation for essentially launching the silhouette challenge, in which she posted a video of herself performing a sensual dance backlit by a blue light, and again for sharing a quick video of her lighting some sage in her room wearing only a T-shirt and panties. She captioned the latter “good vibes onlyyyy,” but the haters ignored it and went hard, calling her “hoeish” and leaving comments, including, “Leave something to the imagination” and “Black women need to carry themselves with more class and respect than this” and “Something just has been seeming off to me about Chloe’s newfound expression over her body and sexuality lately.”
A few days later, on January 31, Chloe took to Instagram Live tearfully thanking her supporters and also speaking up for other young women’s right to expression. “I feel so confident when I get to tap into the sexier side of me … I’m really, like, such a nerd, and I’m really, really shy,” she says in the Live. “It’s honestly taken a lot for me to show the world who I really am inside … it just wouldn’t be right for me to show an image of me that I’m not — a made-up, clean-cut image of me.” She continues, “When I perform, and when I make music, and when I dance, that’s when I get to tap into the sexier side of myself, and that’s where I find my confidence.”
The misogynoir is tired. Black girls are either oversexualized at very young ages or told they can’t embrace their sexuality at all as adults. The policing of Black women’s bodies and chosen methods of self-expression is a major problem. Diei, though, is doing her part to put an end to the problem: Soon after that last meeting with the committee, Diei learned they’d voted to expel her from the school. She appealed to the dean and won.
She also filed a lawsuit.
The First Amendment lawsuit filed by her attorneys at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) alleges Diei’s constitutional rights to free speech were violated by her university. At this point in the process, they’re awaiting a response filing from the school. “We are ready and eager to fight for Kimberly’s expressive rights,” Katlyn A. Patton, a staff attorney at FIRE told Sexual + Being in an email. “A university does not get to decide when a young woman is being too expressive about sexuality on social media.”
We reached out to The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, too, but they said they could not provide comment on the pending case.
“Even though I was granted the appeal, there was no guarantee that I could not be brought back to the professional committee for some other reason, and they would try to, once again, limit my free speech and remove me from the program,” Diei says. “I really had to take this stance to get the protection that I deserved, so that I can move forward in peace.”
And she’s not only doing this for herself. She’s doing this for all students who may one day find themselves in a similar position. “I just want to hone in on the fact that this lawsuit is to protect all students from backlash from their institution all because they might post a tweet that isn’t well-received by everyone,” she explains. “And so from that, I am also hoping that … Black women are no longer targeted by such biased professionalism policies, all used to sort of keep our Blackness out of the field. I don’t think that it’s fair, and it needs to stop.”