UCSB professor’s lifelong work is as valid as ever, while two UCSB students share their minority experience on campus.
By George Thurlow ’73
Paul Spickard’s office in the Humanities building at UC Santa Barbara contains both the academic and the personal side of his 40-year search for the meaning of race.
He has written and edited more than two dozen notable books on race and has largely focused on the idea of mixed race identities. There on the shelf next to his books are the pictures of his daughter and son who are both half-Chinese. He also has three half-Mexican/half-White stepchildren. They are the personal embodiment of all that he has sought to discover.
The United States has spent 400 years grappling with race, with some success punctuated with bitter failures. As the issue of race again swirls around both American and European societies, Spickard’s work is more relevant than ever. He has taught history at UC Santa Barbara for more than two decades and watched as what he describes as a “totally white college” became one that has 27 percent Hispanic students and 44 percent first generation. “In the UC system we are second in the percentage of African-Americans behind Riverside.”
“We have made a lot of progress,” he noted. But the recent racial tensions over the Black Lives Matter movement, the thinly veiled ethnic taunts during the presidential campaign, and now the beginning of what could be a roundup of Latinos in the U.S. has Spickard worried about our race relations.
The Trump presidency “and all the stuff around it is a symbol not causal,” of the race issues facing the nation.
“We have made a lot of progress in the U.S. during the last 50 years,” Spickard explained. “Once upon a time a lot of white people were scared of black people and felt superior. They didn’t know anything about Asians or Indians.
“The second half of the 20th century was a time when etiquette and respect grew in relations between the races. There were folks that had the idea of America moving toward one society of all its people,” he said. “Yet there have continued to be wide economic and opportunity gulfs between white and non-white populations.”
What has occurred in the last few years and in particular during last year’s election is an “eruption of repressed hostility,” according to Spickard, and it “came from white people in America.”
“We deluded ourselves into thinking we had made more progress than we had,” Spickard remarked.
It’s not just in the U.S. where this schism has emerged. It can be seen in England, France, Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe where a backlash against minority ethnic groups has fueled right wing political parties.
“I worry that 40 years of making America a better place is swirling down the drain,” he said. “I certainly hope not. I hope the voices of our better selves will drown out the voices of our fearful selves.”
This divide among the races across the world is occurring even as a growing number of people in the U.S. define themselves as multiethnic.
Spickard’s first book 30 years ago studied interracial marriage and society’s response to it. From laws in some states outlawing miscegenation, the U.S. has come a long way from a time when mixed race marriages were seen as occurring among “mixed up” people to one where it is part of the melting pot of American society.
In his most recent book, “Race in Mind,” published last year, Spickard talks of the old notion in science and literature that race was a biological definition. Spickard is part of the now dominant historical and sociological thinkers who see race as a social definition rather than a biological one.
And race, in particular multiethnicity, is in major flux. “Over the years,” Spickard wrote, “I have come to see race, not as a simple set of fixed categories, but as a moving, morphing, complex and shifting set of relationships.”
The problem with the old biological notion of race was that it divided all the ethnic groups in the world into categories, then into subcategories, then into distinct subunits. Over time, these groups have melded into indistinct groups. What does it now mean to be 25 percent black, or 10 percent Chumash or 60 percent Nordic?
It is the social definitions, not artificial biological markers, that are important, Spickard noted. He described one of his students who is multiethnic. She is from Latin America but like many Latin Americans is of mixed race, including African, indigenous, Spanish and Lebanese. In her native country, she is considered white. In the U.S., she is considered brown. She does not change biology when she crosses borders. The social definition of who she is changes.
A whole chapter of Spickard’s new book is an examination of the impact of the first African-American president in U.S. history. Spickard is quick to point out that Barack Obama was multiethnic and his success came from not causing Anglo Americans to fear his African features because his Anglo cultural heritage was so dominant. Of course, as Spickard points out, this did not stop a relentless drumbeat of racially tinged “birthers” who claimed Obama was not American.
Ever the historian Spickard makes an important point about the future of race in America and the world. “If there is one fact that we know from all of human history it is pretty much everybody is going everywhere and having sex with everybody. Forever,” Spickard said. “If we can recognize that, we have a chance to be a society that gets past the present moment of fear. We need to go about rebuilding a society that is happy about its multiplicity and enjoys the fact that there are lots of different kinds of people.”
I worried that I would not fit in at UCSB because of my experience as a minority student in high school. I transferred in as a sophomore, and despite my best efforts to make friends and fit in, I often felt left out and often heard inappropriate comments about my skin color from those I thought could be “friends.” I was nearly 16 and wanted to fit in to avoid feeling lonely especially in a new environment.
One week into fall quarter at UCSB, my worries were gone thanks to the extremely welcoming environment. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was truly supported by people around me and my race did not play a role in the treatment I received anywhere on campus. In class, I have never felt judged for having a certain opinion because of my skin color and background. I learned to speak up and to think critically without worrying how I might be looked at. Everyone on campus makes a sincere effort to get along with one another regardless of race, religion and other things that seem to divide our society.
I have not once felt that my involvement on campus was impeded due to my ethnicity or cultural difference; I have never been afraid to participate in activities or felt as if I was looked down upon because of stereotypes associated with Asian American students.
As much as I thought I already knew myself before coming to UCSB, the environment here constantly encourages me to try different things and to open up more.
I feared that the opportunities that I wanted would slide by because of the difference in my skin color; that my voice would not be heard because of the difference in my background; and that UCSB might not be the place for me. Still, I came here, I embrace the challenges every day, ready to discover a new bit about myself, thanks to everyone who is making this experience extra special for me.
As a Black woman, attending UC Santa Barbara has been one of the most challenging experiences I have ever encountered. Existing as a student in a place that is inherently not your own, in which your equality to others derives from student driven demands, where your very identity is constantly challenged and undermined, institutionally and interpersonally, is difficult to say the least. But I have learned that the university is truly a microcosm for the world, and a catalyst for change. The institutional racism, the micro-aggressions, the feeling that we don’t belong, are experiences that almost any Black student will attest to sharing at one time or another. But equally important is the feeling of purpose, and knowing that we have the ability to make drastic changes not just to this university, but to this world. UCSB’s pride and joy is its students.
It was students who in 1968 took over North Hall and demanded institutional changes in the treatment of Black people on this campus; it was students who in 2012, channeling the events of 1968, demanded that the needs of the UCSB Black community - students, faculty, and staff alike - be reassessed and readdressed. And it is students, in the Black Student Union, in the Black Student Engagement Program, in the Black Scholars Hall, and in my classrooms, that challenge the very fabric of this country through their challenges to administration. Additionally, it is the amazing members of the UCSB administrative, faculty, and staff community - the Mike Millers, the Margaret Klawuuns, the Mhoze Chikoweros - that empower students to be that change.
That’s what my UCSB experience has meant to me - being empowered to change this campus and this world in ways that for so long were treated as impossible. It means being able to learn, understand, and educate others to make change at the best university. It means being given the best platform for researching changes you want to make, and providing evidence for your own revolution. It means aggressively and assertively changing the world’s perception and treatment of Blackness, and it means doing it beachside at the world’s most beautiful campus.