UC Berkeley News


Mixing it up: Filling in the portrait of multiracial UC Berkeley students
As numerous testimonials underscore, this is one area that's not black and white

17 March 2005

"What are you?"

That's the question Robert Allen, adjunct professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies, writes on the chalkboard when students first file in for his People of Mixed Racial Descent class. It's also the question that complete strangers are always asking four Berkeley students of mixed race who shared their viewpoints for a recent NewsCenter article, "Mixed emotions: The multiracial student experience at UC Berkeley," from which the following first-person statements are excerpted. To widen the lens on what's by definition an extremely diverse group, the NewsCenter invited readers to e-mail their responses to the students' stories, and posted them on a special Multiracial Forum page. (Read the full article and find the forum via www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/goto/multiracial.)

At Berkeley, an eye-opening 22.9 percent of all respondents identified themselves as "multi-racial or multi-ethnic" on the 2004 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey. Across the UC system the average was 25.8 percent. Thanks to the growing numbers of mixed young people here and nationwide, a journey that often begins in college as a personal quest for identity is starting to gather force as a political movement.

Berkeley pioneered much of the academic research on the mixed-race community, and the "People of Mixed Racial Descent" class was the first of its kind in the nation. It was started in 1980 by Terry Wilson, a professor of Native American Studies and the son of a Potawatomi Indian father and a white mother. Several of the course's early teachers, like Ph.D. student Cynthia Nakashima, have gone on to write landmark texts about the multiracial experience.

The class is even more heavily subscribed now. "For many of the students, it's the first chance they've had to talk about their experience in a supportive environment," says Allen. When he teaches the class, he emphasizes the artificiality of the idea of race, reminding students that it has no scientific basis. In 1998 the Anthropological Association of America actually released a formal statement to that effect: "Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94 percent, lies within so-called racial groups.This means that there is greater variation within 'racial' groups than between them."

And yet racism - stereotypes based on imaginary group characteristics - means that we cannot leave race behind, at least not for the foreseeable future. "It has consequences. In America, your life chances are still determined by race," argues Allen. "In the end, you become a member of a race because of your heritage, not your appearance."