UC Santa Barbara Division of Humanities and Fine Arts hosted a panel on tokenism in academia and the local community on Jan. 31. in honor of Black History Month. 

The panelists shared their experiences and insights on living in a predominantly white environment as Black Americans. Nexus File Photo

At the panel, Dean of the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA) Dr. Daina Berry said tokenism is still very prevalent in academia. 

“I carry a trauma, but I also carry the DNA of hope. And I lean into hope,” Berry said to open the discussion.

The first in a series of HFA events in commemoration of Black History Month, this panel was initiated with the vision to highlight UCSB faculty. Fourth-year writing and literature major Maya Johnson moderated the discussion.

Approximately 60 participants showed up to the panel, many of them in the Writing for Gender Studies class in the College of Creative Studies writing program. 

Two panelists led the discussion: Berry, who is also a history professor and the Michael Douglas Dean of HFA at UCSB, and Wendy Jackson, a lecturer in the Department of Film and Media Studies and Founder and Executive Producer of Auburn Avenue Films. 

The panelists shared their experiences and insights on living in a predominantly white environment as Black Americans. When asked about tokenism, Berry turned to her experience as the only Black female dean at UCSB and the only Black student in her Ph.D. program. 

“[Tokenism] is being singled out and being highlighted in a spotlight setting,” she said. “I don’t think we moved past it.”

Jackson voiced a similar experience with tokenism.  As someone who grew up in Atlanta where the African American population is historically higher, Jackson said, “I did not know that I could be the token.” 

“I only read about this kind of life,” she continued. 

Jackson commented on similar experiences with tokenism in academia at UC Berkeley and the University of Georgia.

“[Tokenism] means you are allowed in the building, but not own it. It means people aren’t willing to say your name.”

Following their interpretation of tokenism, the panelists talked about Black History Month and activism. 

“Black history is every month because I do Black history,” Berry said. “What bothers me is that they only celebrate the first [month].”

Berry then shared her view on curriculum activism, saying, “[activism] is always a part of who I am.” 

“There are so many stories that haven’t been told,” she said. “There are people who don’t even have names [in history books]. They are just numbers.”

Jackson also highlighted the importance of telling stories of Black experiences. 

“It takes courage and dialogue to tell others’ stories,” Jackson said. “You can’t research one hundred groups of anybody and get their story … [because] we’re not lab rats.” 

When asked about the experience in the UCSB community, both panelists mentioned a keyword: “intentional.”

“You have to be very intentional to make friends and connections. It’s a lot of effort,” Jackson said. 

To conclude the discussion, the speakers shared more about their personal experiences and ways of living as Black Americans in Santa Barbara, such as how they found hairdressers for their unique hair and how they connected with the African American community after moving to a new place.

“Since we have [an] intentionally intersectional understanding of gender studies, a lot of their intro scholars on gender and feminism have been Black women,” Writing for Gender Studies professor Michelle Petty-Grue said. “[The panel] would be informative and contextualizing for them … this is a more updated view of what some of those things [in writing] are in practice.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 6 of the Feb. 8, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus