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Teaching black studies at a predominantly white university: A conversation with a UCSB professor

West entrance to the UC Santa Barbara Library, showing Mountain (left) and Ocean (right) sides of the library.
UC Santa Barbara Library, Wikimedia Commons.
West entrance to the UC Santa Barbara Library, showing Mountain (left) and Ocean (right) sides of the library.

Ingrid Banks has been a professor of black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) for over 20 years, covering topics from African American history to current issues facing Black communities.

At a university where only 4% of the undergraduate population is black, Banks expressed feeling the need to work hard to earn students’ respect.

“I have had to deal with racism and sexism,” Banks said. “I have had to deal with students sitting in my office and questioning my evaluation of their work, and I often have to say I'm the only one with the PHD in this room.”

According to the UCSB 2022-23 campus profile, the highest percentage of students is white, at 35%, followed by Asian Pacific Islander at 29%.

Banks feels many students assume her class will be easy. She believes that attitude is rooted in long-standing biases against Black Studies in America.

“It's based on this history of anything associated with black people that isn't supposed to be serious and isn't supposed to be rigorous, whether that student thinks that on a conscious or or unconscious level,” Banks said.

In 1968, black students at UCSB joined the civil rights movement and called for a history curriculum that went beyond eurocentric perspectives. Their demands were accepted, creating the Department of Black Studies.

It's curriculum is recently considered ninth in the nation.

Looking ahead, Banks hopes UCSB can foster more black inclusion and diversity by giving more support to its Black Studies Department.

“The more we teach about institutionalized inequality, it pushes students to think critically and hopefully it pushes them to be better citizens in the university as well as the world,” Banks said.

Beyond UCSB, the majority of Santa Barbara County residents are white, making up 85% of the population, according to the US Census Bureau.

To foster inclusion in the community, Banks invites the public to attend the department’s events.

“We have a lot of great things going on in our department at UCSB, and I strongly encourage and invite folks in the Central Coast to come on out.” Banks said.

More information on upcoming events, including guest speakers is at blackstudies.ucsb.edu.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.