Racial Equity@Haas: Core Professor – Krystal Thomas (UGBA 100)

Guest Post Written by Naayl Kazmi.

This Racial Equity@Haas blog series written by three Haas students (Charlie James, Alankrita Dayal, and Naayl Kazmi) is providing the space for us to meet our core principles of being Students Always, Beyond Ourselves, and Questioning the Status Quo by opening the conversation on race, how it manifests in business, and its broader implications. We’re asking Four questions to members of the Haas community in order to illuminate how racial equity in business and Haas is conceived and to stir an open conversation.

Krystal Jalene Thomas is a lecturer with the undergraduate program at UC Berkeley – Haas, and an alumna from 1994. Her professional experiences range from change management consulting with Accenture, to strategic marketing, to media, where she helms her own content development and production company, Pooka Ventures. Professor Thomas has a BS/BA from UC Berkeley and an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Responses have been abridged for length and clarity.

Q1) What is racial equity to you?

“Racial equity as a whole is hope, a goal. Part of the problem is that we, as a society, don’t have a common sense of what is equal.  That’s why we’re having this discussion to begin with.

Personally, I think the promise of racial equity is what MLK talked about – the moment where all people will be ‘judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.’  I don’t want to be solely defined by race, gender, or other labels we are so quick to impose. I’d rather be seen for my contributions, my humanity, my actions, my spirit. Labels reduce individuality to stereotypes. Once typed, you’re left with one of two positions:  assume the stereotype or fight the stereotype. Either way, a typed person never gets a fair chance to fully express who they are in the world. So, to sum up – I see racial equity as an abstract concept, best expressed in Dr. King’s hope of an equity that transcends superficial markers.”

Q2) In your perception, how is Haas on matters of racial equity?

“As a student at Cal in the 90’s, the diversity of the campus was the most transformative aspect of my college experience. I used to say it was like ‘going to Howard in the middle of Harvard’. The numbers spoke for themselves back then: around 15% Asian (depending on how you define Asian), 8% African American, 4-6% Latinx, and international students comprising 25% of the student body. I have friends now in Uruguay, because I met someone from that tiny South American country back in undergrad. So, it hurts my heart as a professional faculty member today to not see that kind of representation, or to see certain populations be the only face in class. At my time at Haas, I was never the only African American student in any class. The reason it hurts my heart is because people come to Berkeley, specifically, on a journey to figure out who they are and define themselves as individuals. You can’t fully walk that path if you’re not exposed to the world you are defining yourself in.

In my own life, I was one of 13 African Americans in a high school of 3200 in Huntington Beach, California.  During that time in my life, I always felt out of place because I was constantly considered an exception. In school, I was ‘the articulate black girl’ but my extended family felt I ‘acted too white.’ Berkeley was the first place I ever felt like a whole person. And then to discover courses like African American Studies 1A, my world just opened. I would’ve never had that opportunity if I hadn’t been at Berkeley when Professor Roy Thomas could call up Angela Davis and say ‘Hey, come talk to my class!’ – those were the kind of Berkeley experiences that shaped me. As the daughter of an international businessman, I spoke multiple languages. So, the opportunity to just go hang out in a Chicano class – and hear from my Latinx contemporaries about the politics of language, for example, wouldn’t have happened at any other college. Today, I try my best to bring diverse perspectives back into the classroom to pay forward the Berkeley experience.

Moving back to your question in regards to Haas, many of those shaping the vision of the undergraduate program today were connected to Berkeley in the 90’s and saw the impact of Prop 209.  I’m very confident in Haas leadership because it’s made of individuals who understand how we’ve evolved. We can’t solve a racial equity problem, as you’re terming it, without understanding how we got there. Programs crafted by leaders like Dr. Erika Walker, or Dean Lyons are rethinking what it means to be diverse. Consider a simple act like the defining four principles of Haas. Such an innovative move cultivates the seeds for emphasizing individuality, content, and character, allowing for a more holistic assessment of the kinds of people associated with Haas without discrediting the experiences shaped by anyone’s gender, race, age or socioeconomic status.

Like many alumna from my era, I held emotional scars from racial debates impacting California educational policies. I distinctly remember an incident at Berkeley, when an Asian male student told me that I’d likely taken the place of his more qualified Asian friend because of affirmative action. But when I actually listed my accomplishments and qualifications from high school, his response was like ‘oh, well maybe you do belong here.’  I share this not to debate affirmative action or Prop 209, but more to express the emotional impacts of policy. For many of us, it felt like they didn’t want us here – that we hadn’t earned the right to be here. For quite a few years after graduation, my attitude towards Berkeley was – ‘Don’t call me for money, don’t reach out for my support; if you don’t believe in my value, then – deuces!’  It was my best friend from Cal, also an African American who said to me, ‘if you feel that strongly about it, go back and work to change things.’ So, when you talk about how things are today, you can’t ignore the emotional impacts. Our Haas leadership today recognizes the pain of that period and is demonstrably committed to creating a culture where everyone is respected and belongs.”

Q3) How do you find racial equity important to business? 

“Businesses are microcosms of the society and the environments they operate in. Today’s world is more global and connected than ever before. To stay competitive, businesses have to be exposed to diverse environments and ways of thinking.  Race, gender, and age are elements that form our reality, and shape our perspectives as individuals. Differentiation in product, brand, positioning, culture, and market comes from distinct perspectives. Native understanding of problems, gaps and opportunities generate stronger business solutions.  You can’t grow by staying static, or unearth the next product or disruption if everyone in an organization thinks the same way or shares only one similar experience. In short, companies that reflect the world they serve, win.”

Q4) Parting thoughts?

“As a school and a workplace, Berkeley is one of the most committed organizations to diversity I’ve ever encountered. Although discussions about this topic can be challenging, Berkeley and Haas remain committed to having the conversations, which is half the battle. In fact, I think a role of Cal in the world is to talk about these kinds of things and spark meaningful dialogue.

The movements on this campus are often decades ahead of the mainstream zeitgeist, from the civil rights and free speech movement, to sexual identity and gender equity, to the myriad of conversations happening today. Diversity, of all kinds, is something people care about here, and that authentic spirit creates a culture where the fullest expression of personal identity has a chance to be realized.”

Thank you.

 

 

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