Doe exhibit celebrates 30 years of American Cultures requirement

photo of a board about tumbling the ivory tower
Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
Doe Library features new exhibit looking into UC Berkeley's American Cultures requirement.

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In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the American Cultures, or AC, program requirement, campus’s Doe Library is hosting a temporary exhibit entitled “Tumbling the Ivory Tower,” which tracks the history of the University of California American Cultures requirement.

The exhibit shows the student activism that laid the groundwork for the requirement, how the requirement has impacted students at UC Berkeley and how it continues to matter both on campus and around the country. Besides the physical exhibit, which was set up Friday, there will also be an online exhibit on the same topic, according to Corliss Lee, the library liaison to AC.

“It’s really important that we have a place in our lives at UC Berkeley where we can be having really difficult conversations, where we can adapt some structure for that,” said Victoria Robinson, longtime campus ethnic studies lecturer and director of the AC Center. “We should be really proud that we were the national diversity model in a very critical way when other peer universities were not taking the leap in the way that we were.”

The AC requirement was incorporated into the university curriculum in 1991, in the wake of student organizing. A wave of protests against apartheid brought UC Berkeley students in contact with local activists and labor unions in the Bay Area.

The exhibition reflects on this legacy and explores the ways in which students were able to reframe the mission of the university.

“I really did want to think through what would it look like to reanimate a conversation on how powerful students at UC Berkeley are because UC Berkeley students turned this oil tanker of a university,” Robinson said.

Today, ethnic studies and critical race theory, a broad field of study that examines the ways in which structural racism continues to shape American institutions, culture and politics, are a topic of frequent debate in the media.

Some have argued that the emphasis on critical race theory has proven damaging to the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party and has provoked backlash from opponents. Across the country, Republicans have run on promises to “ban critical race theory” and won, most recently in the Virginia gubernatorial election. But Robinson says she’s not worried.

“It’s a celebration, it truly is, to survive and thrive and be here right now and available for the new fights and struggles,” Robinson said. “The exhibit felt like a way to kind of underline that and underscore that AC is not afraid of the work that is going on to dismantle our commitment to racial and social justice. I think the exhibit in some ways is a ‘here we are, this work is happening at Berkeley and we’re doing pretty well.’ ”

David Villani is a city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @DavidVillani7.