‘The idea that you don’t belong’: Black faculty, students at UC Berkeley talk diversity

Sproul Hall
Rachael Garner/File

Related Posts

As national conversations around race continue, Black students and faculty members at UC Berkeley are bringing attention to issues the Black community faces, including isolation, frustration and impostor syndrome.

Initiatives such as the Graduate Student Diversity Task Force, the Undergraduate Student Diversity Project and the African American Initiative seek to increase diversity through methods including outreach and recruitment, admissions practices and faculty hiring practices. However, Black faculty members and students still face obstacles in representation and feeling that they belong on campus.

Integrative biology professor Tyrone Hayes recently sent an open letter to his department titled “My Dream Come True: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Hayes, who said he is the only Black faculty member in the history of the integrative biology department, commented on his experiences encountering racism in his early life in South Carolina and also in his professional life as a student at Harvard University and as a graduate student and faculty member at UC Berkeley.

Hayes said there need to be efforts made to recruit and encourage not only Black students, but also other minorities and first-generation students, at the undergraduate, graduate and faculty levels.

“Even one lab can make a huge difference, if you’re really making that effort to create an environment where you’re encouraging undergraduates to come into academia,” Hayes said. “It has to start there, and that has to start in part with how we teach our undergraduate courses.”

Hayes said in the last three years, he has not had a single Black student in any of his classes, but in his time as a professor, the Black students he has taught have expressed to him the difference that it made to have a Black teacher.

One of his former students is Nadine Burke Harris, the California surgeon general, who recently tweeted Hayes’ open letter. She said he was her only Black professor at UC Berkeley and that his “presence changed my trajectory.”

Hayes said being the only Black professor in the history of the integrative biology department has influenced every facet of his life.

“It affects my ability to express myself because one of the difficulties of writing that letter was that I don’t want faculty to look at me and say, ‘Oh, here’s the angry Black man,’ ‘Oh well, he’s playing the race card,’ ” Hayes said. “You wonder about how your colleagues are going to view you if you really express how you felt.”

Hayes added that as a person of color, there is often an expectation or feeling that he is “lucky” to be in the position he is in and that he should not ask for anything more. In his letter, Hayes alleged that after bringing up his grievances to the dean, he was told, “You can’t prove it’s because you’re Black … I mean you’re the only one.”

Hayes also said he has felt that he needs to prove that he is not a “token hire.”

In his letter, Hayes recounted an experience at Harvard while he was an undergraduate student in which a student said to him, “You took my spot.”

“Those types of events follow you through life,” Hayes said. “The importance lies in how they reinforce the idea that you don’t belong.” 

Hayes added that 10 years ago, he had written another open letter to the integrative biology department about similar issues after he requested that faculty members have a discussion on diversity at a retreat, and the discussion was scheduled for a 15-minute period on the last day after the wine hour.

“At that time, I wrote a very similar letter to the faculty and said, ‘This is what it’s like for me every day of my life,’ ” Hayes said. “Somehow, 10 years later, everybody forgot about that.”

Hayes said after his most recent letter, many faculty members from his department reached out and admitted that they knew about parts of the problem. He said he thinks faculty should have acted earlier and that it should not have to take murders, protests, riots and letters from their own department’s graduate students for them to realize that there is a “crisis.”

ASUC Senator Chaka Tellem, who is the Black community representative, said his experiences at UC Berkeley thus far have been positive and that he is grateful to have been around Black students and faculty through various organizations, African American studies classes and the residence halls’ “Afro floor.”

“The main thing I want to do is have dialogue with Black students,” Tellem said. “I haven’t really faced many troubles, and I think it has a lot to do with intersectionality. As a Black male on campus, I’m not going to have the same experience as a Black female or a queer-identifying Black person.”

Tellem said he hopes to strengthen the relationship between the ASUC and the Black community in order to foster dialogue and action.

He added that he has spoken to other Black students on campus and found that many, especially those in STEM, do not have many Black professors.

“When you don’t see a lot of people who look like you, you question your sense of belonging,” Tellem said. “It definitely foments impostor syndrome among Black students here at Cal, and it’s a very important issue that needs to be addressed.”

Gracelynne West, an incoming student at the Graduate School of Journalism, explained that as a Black undergraduate student at UC San Diego, she felt “as if we were never part of the university in the first place.” In her time there, she and others fought for an African American studies minor, as well as a Black resource center.

She also recounted racist actions that she saw perpetrated against Black people, such as a Blackface-themed party a fraternity threw and a noose that a Black student found in a library.

“I have no faculty mentors that I can reach out for support during such a precarious time for the Black community,” West said in an email. “I am really anxious about the thought of entering another program where my identities are so underrepresented.”

Pierre-Valery Tchetgen, a Black doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Education, said the first time he heard about microaggressions was from a counselor at the University Health Services Tang Center.

“I would enter certain spaces, and I would start to feel really ill at ease, sometimes around my heart, sometimes around my neck, and I couldn’t really understand it,” Tchetgen said.

Tchetgen said in the past, there was a student-organized group at UC Berkeley called “taboo topics,” where Black graduate students got together and discussed various issues they faced.

At one meeting, a Black GSI recounted his experiences teaching, as he noticed that students would prefer to turn to other, equally confused, students rather than talk to him, according to Tchetgen.

Tchetgen added that as a GSI, he has seen students dismiss alternative perspectives from texts such as African philosophy.

“It’s a loss for the community at large, not just for Black students. Other students are getting a fragmented education,” Tchetgen said. “They haven’t learned the basics about learning and education and what that really means about being a human being.”

While it is important to have Black faculty members, Tchetgen said, he does not think it should necessarily be the default for Black students to be paired with Black professors just because other faculty members feel uncomfortable with them.

“I’ve stepped into certain professors’ offices that felt visibly uncomfortable by my presence,” Tchetgen said. “So, what does that mean about the feedback that they are going to give me about my ideas?”

Tchetgen said there is often an expectation that those who are underrepresented must come in to fix the patterns created by institutions, and he does not think diversity and inclusion seminars do much to actually change the power dynamics or culture.

“I don’t really feel like I have a solution while I’m the subject of the problem, the unspoken subject of the problem,” Tchetgen said.

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.