Elaine Kim on a reckoning with race many years in the making

June 23, 2021

Elaine Kim, founder of Berkeley Ethnic Studies departmentBefore Elaine Kim came to Berkeley as a Ph.D. student in 1968, she was used to being the only Asian person in the room. Kim, who is Korean American, was born in New York and raised in a predominantly working class white suburb of Washington, D.C., the daughter of a migrant farmworker mother and waiter-turned-diplomat father.

She would go on to be the University’s first Asian woman to get tenure and a founding member of both the Ethnic Studies Department and the Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies program.

At Berkeley, while she wasn’t alone, she didn’t feel she belonged. Non-white students didn’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum or the faculty. In 1969, Kim joined the Third World Liberation Front protests demanding that the university acknowledge the contributions of communities of color to history and scholarship. “Our motto was, ‘if something you want does not exist, you can try to create it,’” she says. The result was the founding of the Ethnic Studies Department.



California Magazine (Cal Alumni Association)