Berkeley students teach peers about 'whiteness,' 'decolonizing'

University of California, Berkeley students are facilitating their own courses this fall on topics such as "Deconstructing Whiteness," "Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis," and "Decolonizing Methods in Academic Research."

The classes are all offered through UC Berkeley's "DeCal" program, which allows students to devise and facilitate their own courses that are offered for academic credit once approved by a faculty member and department chair.

This fall, University of California, Berkeley students can learn about “white comfort/coddling,” “decolonizing Palestine,” and making research less “isolating” for “marginalized” students.

The courses in question are offered through UC Berkeley’s DeCal program, which the university describes as “legitimate university courses run by students” that qualify for academic credit and can even fulfill graduation requirements.

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In one course, titled Deconstructing Whiteness, students will “confront uncomfortable conversations about privilege and positionality” in order to “understand where white bodies have the responsibility to be in movements against white supremacy and in solidarity with marginalized peoples and groups of color.”

The description makes clear that the course “will not be to coddle white fragility, but to deconstruct and relearn whiteness through case studies, speakers, and intense, critical readings.”

The course syllabus outlines questions to be addressed during the class, such as “How does recentering what we see as violent and violence reposition who needs protection?” “What are liberal whites’ roles in colonization of education?” “What does the trope of the ‘Good White Person’ do for allyship and conversations around equality?” and “What is one way that the history of white people as inherently innocent, and their tradition as ‘natural’ and therefore good, be disrupted?”

The course also addresses “Environmental Racism,” arguing that “food practices [have] been gentrified,” as well as units on “White Comfort/Coddling,” “White Emptiness of Culture/Cultural Appropriation,” and “White Entertainment.”

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Students can also take a DeCal course on Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis, which will “examine key historical developments that have taken place in Palestine, from the 1880s to the present, through the lens of settler colonialism.”

After gaining a “broad understanding of settler colonialism,” students “will explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism, and the ways in which it has manifested, and continues to manifest, in Palestine.” 

They will then draw upon literature on decolonization to “explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practiced.”

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Yet another course, titled Demystifying the Research Process: Decolonizing Methods in Academic Research, calls for students who seek to “increase representation of marginalized students in grad school and research programs” and to “build a community of researchers of color.”  

The course description explains that “research is an extremely isolating and exclusive process” at UC Berkeley, and during this class, students will work to “dismantle” this reality.  

“In other words,” the course description contends, “marginalized students receive little to no mentorship and access to resources to conduct their research/projects. We exist to bridge this gap.”

The description also includes a warning that students will encounter “triggering course material.”

“Much of the course, particularly the Decolonizing Methods workshop series, will situate research historically as a site of violence and trauma against marginalized communities—much of which will include racial and sexual violence,” the disclaimer states. “In order to prevent additional trauma, you are excused from this class or section of this class. If you feel comfortable doing so, please email or speak to me privately if you need to be accommodated in any way.”

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Each semester Berkeley offers over 150 student-facilitated courses, with between 3,000 and 4,000 enrolled students. The university describes these courses as “an excellent way of meeting the University’s minimum unit requirement.”

“The responsibility of such courses rests on the department chair, faculty member, and student facilitator, who all sign a contract of understanding before the DeCal is reviewed by COCI / the Academic Senate. A faculty member sponsors a student’s course as a 98 / 198 section,” the university explains.

The student instructor provides grade “recommendations” to the faculty sponsor at the end of the semester, who then awards “Pass/No Pass” grades to students.

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof referred Campus Reform to the student facilitators of the courses for comment, only one of whom has responded.

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We need to restructure and revolutionize the way research is taught in universities,” Istifaa Ahmed, facilitator of the “Demystifying the Research Process” course, told Campus Reform. “What sparked the initial need to make these workshops, which later transformed into this course, is the severe deprivation of research resources, mentorship, and community for students of color on campus” [all emphasis Ahmed’s].

Students of color “don’t see our histories or identities reflected in classroom curriculums or research” except as “subjects” or “objects” of the research, Ahmed explained, noting that “many of my peers and I have had professors who told us our research isn’t valuable because it’s ‘too personal.’”

Research in universities is taught completely de-politicized and de-historicized. This is dangerous,” Ahmed continued. “Traditionally, Western researchers enter and extract information from marginalized communities, appropriate and commodify this information for their own profit and benefit, and then make this information completely inaccessible to the very communities from which this information was derived from in the first place.”

“The premise of our work in this course threatens the very foundations of this university. We deconstruct this university as a colonial, imperial research institution,” Ahmed added, explaining that the effort to decolonize research is “a movement that reconciles with research (historically) as a site of violence and colonization against marginalized communities, and works to reclaim control over indigenous and communal ways of knowing and being.”

“While the university may support this endeavor, it is superficial at best,” Ahmed concluded. “Most of this work becomes the burden and responsibility of students. This work needs to exist across disciplines and departments. What is the university doing to provide institutional support for underrepresented researchers and hold themselves accountable?

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @celinedryan