Ethnic studies professors talk to BC Ethnic Studies about academia

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On April 15th, Professors Michael Omi and Raul Coronado spoke with Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies students about how and why they became professors. The truth? Neither expected to go into academia when he first started college.

In fact, Professor Omi initially wanted to be an immigration attorney, but he dropped out of law school after the first week, realizing it was not where he belonged. He confessed, too, that he had initial doubts when he finally decided to become a professor, when he found himself in a class of conservative students not so open to his more progressive viewpoints. “I thought that the locus of social change had moved from college campuses to communities,” Omi admitted. Now, however, he no longer feels this way, and enjoys being able to challenge and reshape the political views of his students. “It’s a very powerful thing, ” Omi said. “Teaching race and ethnicity is interesting. Most students don’t walk into a physics course thinking they are an expert in physics, but so many think they are an expert on race and ethnicity.”

Professor Coronado had a very different story. He came to college as a biology and psychology double-major. Having grown up in Texas in a family of farm workers, he faced a lot of discrimination. “I hated Texas because it was so racist,” Coronado shared, “but as a child, I could not articulate that–I just knew that people were mean.” As one of only two Latino students in the Talented and Gifted program at his school, Coronado found himself doubted by teachers and peers alike. When he told his favorite teacher he had been admitted to the program, the teacher paused and said, “You will probably have a lot of difficulty,” despite Coronado’s stellar grades. Coronado’s family eventually decided to move to the suburbs after he began drinking and doing drugs with his Boy Scout troop and his first boyfriend.

It was at UT Austin, through his involvement with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), that Coronado was first exposed to the ideas that would become the focus of his research. He became fascinated with queer Latino studies and cultural debates. “I wanted to know why people do the things they do,” Coronado said. It was a mentor who encouraged him to pursue academia. When Coronado asked what professors did, he was shocked by the answer. “I get to teach and write for a living? It sounded perfect,” Coronado told us. Going to graduate school was also a way for Coronado to overcome the racism he endured throughout his life. “I was always told I wouldn’t do well, but I was able to overcome those fears.”

A Berkeley Connect mentor and a student brought up the issue of representation on the campus, and trauma sites. “As a woman of color, I don’t see myself represented in my classes, and it makes me question whether I belong here. Even as a senior, I really struggle because I feel like this institution doesn’t wholly accept my identity,” the student shared. Omi chimed in, agreeing that institutions are exclusionary. “But it’s really important to reclaim spaces,” he added. Coronado could also relate. He recalled having to change the way he spoke among his peers when he attended graduate school at Stanford. “Here, I feel at home,” Coronado said. “I think that trauma stems both from racialization and class.” But he also mentioned that class is fluid. At Stanford, he felt uncomfortable with the etiquette he had to learn; he found himself constantly having to defend his work. During a stay in Mexico City, in contrast, he found that everyone was very receptive to his ideas. Children on the street called him patrón (“boss man,” in Coronado’s translation). The move from one city and country to another had profound implications for Coronado’s social identity; as he told the group, “My class was so radically different in Mexico.”

As the discussion wrapped up, another student asked the professors about their views on their work and social change. “How do you negotiate your work and the insular nature of academia with social impact?” she asked. Coronado believes that professors’ work does directly contribute to social change. “I think what I do is very much part of it,” Coronado said. “If I can shift the curriculum for students to read more Latino literature, I feel I am contributing.” Omi is one of several professors involved in the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, which brings together academics and policymakers to challenge the barriers to a better, more inclusive society. “Scholars are generating content that is important for communities,” Omi said. “But it isn’t really intelligible to [those communities]. So the institute is working to make it intelligible to others and make it more accessible to policymakers and communities.” He describes their job as “translating English into English.”

As Omi and Coronado prove, there is more than one path to academia–and working as an academic does not have to mean entering an “ivory tower.” These scholars make a difference in the lives of their students and in the world in which they live.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant