In an effort to raise awareness about equity in education, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) superintendent has created Onward and Upward, a series featuring speakers from the University of California (UC) Berkeley Graduate School of Education. On January 31, at Longfellow Middle School, Dr. Jabari Mahiri gave a presentation entitled “Multicultural Education Beyond the Color-Bind.” Dr. Mahiri is the Chair of the William and Mary Jane Brinton Family in Urban Teaching at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. Given to a modest array of teachers and parents, his presentation was designed to be used in a classroom setting in order to start a discussion on identity and culture. Dr. Mahiri said, “Our struggles with some of the issues with race and ethnicity prevent us from unifying to the level that we need to stop other problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation.” He discussed how multicultural education is a necessary step in order to ensure equity in a school environment, while also making students confident in their own identity and accepting of others.
One exercise that Dr. Mahiri suggested teachers use was to show the images of Colin Kaepernick, Barack Obama, and Naomi Osaka. He asked what race the audience thought each celebrity was. This ended up being a trick question since none of them identify as one race, but as biracial. The point of this exercise was to show that the way you look on the outside, doesn’t necessarily match up with how you appear to other people. Another story he presented, was of his friend’s son Joshua. His parents are Black and Latina, yet Joshua presents more as Black. Joshua has a younger brother who has a much lighter complexion, so people always assume that he’s Latino. This showcases the contradiction of labeling people and connects to Dr. Mahiri’s main argument, which is that race is a social construct. By understanding that race is simply a way to feed the human desire to label people, society can move towards appreciating others’ cultures, rather than demonizing them.
While this lesson is without a doubt helpful for students to be taught, it may already be covered in the required ninth grade class at Berkeley High School (BHS), Ethnic Studies. This class examines identity and culture and how they fit into today’s society, in addition to a history of different cultures and races. This isn’t to say that a BHS education does a perfect job of teaching students about other cultures. Junior Margot Fish, said, “I feel like we learn about how cultures were victimized, but not about how their culture was before it was colonized.” Many students already agree with Dr. Mahiri’s points without having listened to his presentation, including freshman Krithi De Souza. De Souza said, “Race is a social construct because it has been scientifically proven that it is not genetically real, but society has created it, which makes it relevant in today’s age.”