Imagine a dystopian world where a majestic statue of Stalin looms over the city of Berkeley with gleaming rays illuminating its glory in a heroic, celestial manner. That’s a completely absurd notion, but it can be agreed that monumental statues, portraits and buildings serve as manners of remembrance and honor that should never be associated with oppressive and malicious individuals.
The individuals we choose to honor in white America are portrayed through a filter: We smooth out the wrinkles of lies, erase the stretch marks of oppressive ideology and blur the history of unjust conduct. But regardless of the amount of Photoshopping we do to euphemize history, the reality of the truth cannot and should not be concealed to appease the innocence of the public eye.
The aforementioned dystopian society does exist in the United States, that is, if you are a nonwhite American.
Bradley Afroilan and Anthony Williams are two sociology majors and students of color who are using art as a means to rectify the naming of a building after an oppressor. Barrows Hall traces its name to former president of the University of California, David Prescott Barrows — a colonizer who believed in white supremacy. According to an op-ed that Afroilan and Williams wrote for The Daily Californian: “David Prescott Barrows described Pilipinxs (spelling to denote gender-neutrality) as ‘savages’ and implemented a system of colonial education meant to ‘civilize’ and reform ‘the vicious system of teaching in current Filipino schools.’”
Barrows’ attempts to westernize and “whitewash” this marginalized minority group undermines the legitimacy of their culture in preference for the superiority of the white systems. The core beliefs Barrows held stand in stark juxtaposition of the ethnic studies and gender and women’s studies departments, which are both currently housed within the building. The dichotomy of a building simultaneously endorsing and criticizing white supremacy is quite an ironic paradox — especially when it’s on UC Berkeley grounds, the premier location for protests against injustice and inequality. “Our art is a form of protest,” Afroilan said.
The individuals we choose to honor in white America are portrayed through a filter: We smooth out the wrinkles of lies, erase the stretch marks of oppressive ideology and blur the history of unjust conduct.
The centerpiece of the proposed art, a black-and-white mural painted on the wind tunnel wall of Barrows Hall that would feature close-up headshots of Pilipinx and Black activists who Afroilan and Williams see to be figures of decolonization, has not been actualized as of yet. But a replica has been copied onto posters that have been posted around the building, and an image of the two spearheaders standing next to a Photoshopped copy of the art has been shared on social media platforms. It is accompanied by a statement from the artists: “Rename Barrows Hall … we dream of a mural of revolutionaries of color chosen by students of color to be painted.” They are simple images, but they are bold.
“Our art is full of photographs of these people who feel the same as we do. They are the best known and unknown Black and Pilipinx representations of decolonization,” Williams said.
America, spelt “Amerikkka” on the mural mockup, emphasizes the hypocrisy in the supposed American ideals of equality and justice. The spelling of “history” as “hxstory” and “Philipino” as “Pilipinx” are intentional statements, as “x” breaks down the social constructs of gender and race superiority depicting history not as one person’s perspective of the truths, but a collective shared history.
The notion of renaming Barrows Hall is neither novel nor surprising — it’s an issue that has been discussed greatly in communities of underrepresented minorities. Afroilan and Williams were inspired to take a stand because of their experience in a prejudiced society as low-income students of the underrepresented minority community. Afroilan, of Pilipinx descent, could not stand attending class in a building named after a person who colonized the Philippines. Williams, of Black descent, experienced a similar experience when he studied abroad in the University of Cape Town. Cecil John Rhodes’ statue loomed over the campus he attended, constantly reminding students of color of their supposed inferiority in a school many believe was founded to discriminate against them. Rhodes once said of white people: “I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” Rhodes strongly believed in the apartheid system in South Africa and the treatment of the native people as children.
“Having to see that statue everyday pissed me off. It’s the looming presence of white supremacy that was mentally hard to see,” Williams said.
The University of Cape Town acknowledged the symbol of oppression, apartheid, inequality and white supremacy that the Rhodes statue represented and sprung to action because of the intense pressure from Black and Brown student organizers and activists.
Rhodes finally fell.
“Existence is resistance.”
Afroilan and Williams want to replicate that result here in Berkeley. They serve as a united front in the project to eliminate racism, inequality and ignorance to finally expose the hidden symbols of white superiority in the name of Barrows Hall.
The UC Berkeley Black Student Union desires Barrows Hall to be named after Assata Shakur, while the Pilipinx community requests the building be renamed for Gabriela Silang. Both are names of revolutionaries who stood against oppression and decolonization. But Afroilan and Williams are not too concerned as to what the name of Barrows Hall will be changed to but more of the aspect of changing the name of Barrows. These two representatives of the Black and Pilipinx communities act as one in order to challenge their subjugation by Whiteness.
The sentiment of defiance in a society where students who are underrepresented minorities are coerced into silence may have stemmed from the anger of two, but they voice the pressing feelings of many. What began as an art project to raise awareness and to educate students of the history of Barrows Hall stirred a beehive of suppressed underrepresented minorities ready to be heard. “Existence is resistance,” Williams said.
“Our very presence on campus that it was not built for us is resistance to the false grounds of inclusion. If the mural and the renaming of Barrows were to happen, we would want other people, especially students of color, to feel empowered and affirmed here. We do know that there are spaces such as the Multicultural Community Center, Centers for Educational Justice & Community Engagement, the Ethnic Studies Library, and multicultural groups on campus, but we want a physical space outside of these that affirms our existence,” Afroilan said.
No one ever questions the given. People assume statements from the established to be true and right, but are the foundations of the establishments true and right? Afroilan and Williams, with their project, are questioning the unquestioned.