Writer and philopsopher Frantz Fanon’s works are influential in post-colonial studies and critical theory. His book “Black Skin, White Masks” is a study of the sociological and psychological  impact of racism and colonialism. Illustration by Sarah Williams.
Writer and philosopher Frantz Fanon’s works are influential in post-colonial studies and critical theory. His book “Black Skin, White Masks” is a study of the sociological and psychological impact of racism and colonialism. Illustration by Sarah Williams.

If it appears race no longer shapes society, we aren’t seeing clearly, professor Vilashini Cooppan said.

“Post-Obama, there has been so much debate as to whether we’re in a post-racial moment,” Cooppan said. “We very much are not. Race and ethnicity continue to structure our lived experience and the distribution of power and opportunity.”

Cooppan is the director of critical race and ethnic studies (CRES), UC Santa Cruz’s newest major that combines history, philosophy and literature, among other disciplines, to investigate how categories of race and ethnicity are constructed and exploited in the U.S. and globally.

“We can think about what’s going on in Missouri or what’s going on in Gaza,” Cooppan said. “Obviously these questions of race and ethnicity as ongoing and contested categories are with us all the time in contemporary politics”

For many years, UCSC was the only UC without an ethnic studies program, instead relying on American studies and community studies to engage the topic. When these two majors, which acted as de facto ethnic studies programs, were cut in 2010 and 2011 respectively, conversation turned toward creating a major designated solely to investigating race and ethnicity.

That conversation was initiated by students who drafted a proposal for the major and advocated for faculty support, inciting the major’s creation from a protracted lull, into overdrive.

“The logic of why we haven’t had [an ethnic studies program] for 40 years is, ‘Other departments were programmed to deal with race in their specific ways, so we don’t need a program that deals exclusively on it,”’ said graduate student Omid Mohamadi, who is involved in the major’s creation.

But without a program dealing exclusively with the topic, it’s difficult to maintain a robust conversation about race, Mohamadi added.

Four years after the initial proposal, CRES will be offered to undergraduates as a major and to graduate students as a designated emphasis, the graduate equivalent of a minor. CRES’s rapid creation is owed to student commitment, said professor Eric Porter, CRES’s previous interim director.

“We’re fast-tracking [the major creation] to get it up and running because of the student demand and because of our confidence that it’s going to get pretty big pretty quickly,” Porter said.

The CRES major consists of three core classes and a capstone course to be supplemented by approved courses from outside majors. The combination of classes and disciplines will give students a more nuanced academic experience, Porter said.

“The more interdisciplinary programs there are here, the healthier the intellectual environment is,” Porter said.

CRES will also employ service learning, a technique of augmenting work in a classroom with learning through community service.

By using a learning approach deviating from traditional academia, CRES will help students investigate issues of race and ethnicity — social phenomena that are always in flux, said CRES director Vilashini Cooppan.

“Racism is incredibly good at adapting and recombining and changing its logic so those who want to be its critics have to learn to think very subtly, very historically, very precisely to do that work of seeing it where it is,” Cooppan said. “It is, indeed, everywhere.”

Amid claims of a colorblind society, Cooppan warned that this idea of a post-racialism, which asserts that race exists but is not a relevant factor, is nothing new.

“You could think about the 1950s and the 1960s where there is this sense that racial difference exists but it really shouldn’t be counted for in the same way,” Cooppan said, referring to the notion of separate but equal. “Or you can look at the debates surrounding affirmative action starting in the 1980s and 1990s.”

But with changing times come evolving forms of racism, adapted to fit neatly into the status quo, Cooppan said.

“We don’t accept that [races have] biological differences but we tend to still operate with a sense of ineradicable cultural difference,” Cooppan said. “We have to track the ways in which racist and racialized discourses morph with the times.”

Graduate student Omid Mohamadi made a point to express not only CRES’s intellectual value, but also its symbolic value.

“To a lot of students of color, [CRES] gives them a place to call home on campus,” Mohamadi said. “There are microaggressions in a lot of places where students of color might feel alienated, isolated and uncomfortable with expressing their opinions. This enables them to have a place they can call home.”

But Mohamadi mentioned the recent success of CRES was not without a caveat.

“It’s not like we’ve reached the end. Now we’re going to relax a little bit but historically in the U.S., ethnic studies programs have always been under attack financially and otherwise,” Mohamadi said. “We’re very aware of that history and the need to build [CRES] in a very substantive way.”

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