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Two truths and a lie

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SEPTEMBER 08, 2015

I’m a puzzler, if it’s not too arrogant to say. Not the Rubik’s Cube, sudoku-book-on-the-toilet-tank kind, but the kind of person to invent a philosophical or logical problem for himself or herself and then spend a minor eternity solving it, just as methodically. For fun. (I’m a thrill at parties.)

But like a robot whose circuits fry when it’s told a paradoxical riddle, I’ve been mulling over something that I just can’t wrap my brain around for the last few months. Two somethings, actually, both of which — insofar as I can tell — are generally accepted by UC Berkeley students as truth.

A) Attending and graduating a school as prestigious as our own is praiseworthy and honorable, as doing so requires a great deal of hard work and intellect. We should be proud to go here.

B) Members of marginalized populations, like black Americans, women and lower-income families (to name just a few examples), face specific institutional and interpersonal obstacles that their non-marginalized peers do not face, and these should be accounted for when considering any single person’s achievements.

Now hear me out: I completely believe both of the above statements are true. In my years since coming here, I’ve seen their truth firsthand. And maybe at first glance, they don’t seem all that contradictory. After all, if UC Berkeley is hard (right?), and being demographically disadvantaged is hard (right?), being an underprivileged UC Berkeley student would just be really hard — and I’d be a fool to dispute that. The corollary to that idea is where I run into a logical snag.

I’m someone who, relatively speaking, won the birth-circumstance lottery. My married, supportive, American parents have been well-off as long as I’ve been alive. I’m a pale-skinned pan-European mutt with big blue eyes, and I went to a high school where paying for just one top-of-the-line SAT prep course was seen as doing your kid a disservice. I’m lucky. Stupid lucky. And while I’m far from the most sociologically enlightened person I know, I think I get it now.

But where does that leave me, when I’m asked to pat myself on the back for dragging my privileged ass around this awesome campus? How am I supposed to feel proud of my accomplishments, if the unfair advantages I’ve been given are totally beyond my control? And when I feel the tug of scholastic anxiety, knee-deep into midterm season and choking down my nth latte of the night, of course I hate and pity myself, but how dare I — when I’ve been given a headstart all my life, how dare I suggest my college experience is difficult, no matter how hard it seems to feel?

I can’t seem to reconcile those truths, no matter what I try. I am proud to go to UC Berkeley, as I must be, and I am in awe of my many peers who’ve overcome greater challenges than I’ve ever faced. But how can I be both? Where does social predestination end and my own worth as a student — as a person — begin? Can the two ever be distinguished, or am I going to have a mid-life crisis about how little I’ve achieved on my own at the ripe, old age of 21? I’m getting heartburn just writing this.

But there must be an answer. I began asking my friends, colleagues, roommates — anyone who would listen. Their responses ran the gamut from befuddled shrugs to impassioned rebukes. A common refrain was, “You should still be proud — think of all the rich, privileged kids who still turn into drug addicts and losers!” And while, granted, those people do exist, I find that sentiment somewhat less than comforting; sure, I could’ve turned out worse despite my inborn advantages, but does that mean my only accomplishment is a comparative lack of failure? Is that really something to be proud of?

My own philosophical reasoning abilities exhausted, I presented my two-truth paradox to Mel Chen, a campus associate professor of gender and women’s studies. Our conversation was like a scene from an Aaron Sorkin drama, Chen and I weaving through crowds and exchanging remarks as we walked across campus together. Though I struggled to keep up and take notes — even now, my mind is swirling — the gist of Chen’s solution as I understood it was this:

Am I fortunate? Yes. Are the circumstances of my existence the absolute, unassailable apex of privilege? No, probably not. There is likely someone, somewhere in the world born luckier than me. So as long as I don’t try to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t take pride in, Chen said, I can be proud of whatever I want, regardless of how many (or few) societal obstacles stand in my way.

It’s sound logic, but in truth, I’m still not sure I can swallow that. And when I pass through Sather Gate, tourists snapping photos of the hallowed, green-oxidized bronze above me, I keep my gaze fixed squarely on my shoes. It’s not that I’m ashamed to be seen on our campus — far from it. But for so many students, success at UC Berkeley is a war of attrition, fought tooth-and-nail and often alone against an unsympathetic world. I am not the face of that war.

"Off the Beat" columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester's regular opinion writers are chosen. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.
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SEPTEMBER 08, 2015