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Diversity Then and Now: Laplanche Returns to Berkeley

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Akua “Nana” Laplanche ’97 recounted her experiences as a student of color and a civil rights lawyer.

Isabella Schlact, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Christopher Woods
LOOKING FORWARD: Laplanche was excited to see a more racially diverse Upper Division than when she went to Berkeley. “As I look at all of you,” she said, “it warms my heart to see more diversity than when I was here. Seeing a more diverse Berkeley gives me hope for the future as the reality of Berkeley more so reflects the reality of the country.”

On January 12, Upper Division students and faculty were greeted by a new face in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Akua “Nana” Laplanche ’97 was one of seven black Upper Division students and the only black student in her senior class. Since graduating from Berkeley, the University of Florida and Georgetown University Law Center, Laplanche has dedicated her career to defending the civil rights of senior citizens and people with disabilities.

 

Laplanche noted that Berkeley’s campus was not always as diverse and culturally aware as it is now. “While everyone was extremely nice to me,” she said of her time in Upper Division,  “I got some pretty interesting questions and comments.” Students called her an oreo, a slang term for a person who is supposedly black on the outside and white on the inside. “Allegedly, there is a certain way that black people sounded,” Laplanche said, “and I didn’t speak that way.”

 

Laplanche also recalled that students assumed she was of a lower socioeconomic class because of her race. Her father, who has a PhD, spent 36 years as a professor at the University of South Florida, yet Laplanche’s classmates assumed that her father was a janitor. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a janitor,” she said, “but I found it problematic that the question asked was born of stereotype.”

Buccaneer Yearbook staff
BERKELEY THROWBACK: During her time in Upper Division, Laplanche was a Student Council member, French Club President, Basketball Manager and Prefect, to name just a few of her activities.

Current Upper Division students appreciate the increase in diversity on campus. “I thought it was really interesting to notice how the diversity has changed,” said Jacob Bennett ’19. “Especially since [Laplanche] graduated in 1997, which wasn’t that long ago.”  Saundra Tun ’21 said that Berkeley’s environment is more accepting than her former school, where racial slurs were a common form of bullying. “Everybody was a target [at her old school],” she said. “Everybody was a victim of [bullies’] stereotypical racial slurs.”  

 

Throughout her law career, Laplanche has fought for the rights of others. First, she worked with elderly clients below the poverty line at Legal Services of Virginia, then with disabled clients at University Legal Services.  Spending time with senior citizens and people with disabilities was an eye-opening experience for her. Making sure apartment buildings have generators for ventilators or asking for a magnifying glass at the voting booth were things Laplanche never had to think about doing as an able-bodied person.  She said she made the switch to “person first language,” after working with University Legal Services clients. “For example, a person has a disability, as opposed to being a disabled person.  You emphasize the person and not the disability,” she said.

 

Laplanche finished her speech by quoting Dr. King in reference to current events, particularly the “Make America Great Again” slogan that dominated 2016. “What makes America great is that we live in a country where you can go to many countries within one city block,” she said. “You can interact with people who look different from you, speak a different language from you and have different experiences from you, but if you talk for long enough, I’m almost certain you will find that you have something in common.” She encouraged students to have conversations with people different from them. “While it might be hard at first, these experiences will enrich your time on this planet and continue making America great,” she said.

 

While most students enjoyed Laplanche’s talk, some felt it was not appropriate for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Two thirds of survey respondents who disagreed with Laplanche’s message felt that her references to current events were “too political.” Though Tristan Yang ’18 admires Dr. King’s accomplishments during the Civil Rights movement, he felt that Laplanche’s speech was, “too politically charged, in a time when we don’t need this political discussion at every corner.”  

 

Tun thought that the timeliness of Laplanche’s talk was a positive. “I think the best speaking points are when people are uncomfortable,” she said.  Shrisha Saravana ’21 agreed. “…When we grow up, and even as we are now, we have to take a stance and learn what we support and what we think is right,” she said.  “And it’s important that we learn how to have these clear convictions early on, by being able to witness different stances and different political views.”

 

Tun and Saravana are not alone.  In a survey of Upper Division students, over 80% agreed with Laplanche’s message and felt  that Berkeley promotes a culture of diversity on campus. Multiple respondents also suggested ideas for ways that Berkeley can become even more of an accepting environment. Suggestions included offering a wider variety clubs to celebrate different ethnicities (similar to Masala Mix and Jewish Cultural Club) and continuing to have conversations about diversity. “I really like Diversity Club. I think they’re really doing great things,” said Bennett, “and I think we need to have more speakers like [Laplanche], where we discuss diversity to increase awareness.”

 

“I think it’s important that we get people like this to show us examples of how we can make a difference in the world,” said Saravana of Laplanche. “[Since] Berkeley tells us to make a positive difference.”

Isabella Schlact
BY THE NUMBERS: Most Upper Division students enjoyed Laplanche’s speech and agreed with her message. The majority of microaggressions reported were against female students and students of different religions.

For a student perspective on microaggressions:

https://instagram.com/p/Bd5LSz1HdmK/

https://instagram.com/p/Bd7ti1znjPi/

 

For a full copy of Laplanche’s speech:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dFbUVj_82kf1ubPe7VIoMb0dhsWTrXpa_p9DfVRAYj0/edit

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