It was first semester of my freshman year at UC Berkeley. I had wanted to go here since I was in fourth grade, and my dreams were finally coming true. Berkeley’s reputation for inclusivity and intense social movements preceded it, and I was ready for a change — I am from a midsized suburb in southeastern Virginia called Yorktown, a place characterized by two things: its historical significance (it’s where the United States won the Revolutionary War) and its conservative population. I came to UC Berkeley with the hope that I could stay insulated from some of the harsher elements of racial tension that I experienced growing up in the South.
I quickly learned that my hopes were in vain. The week of orientation, a guy named John who lives in my current dorm building drunkenly asked me, “Can you teach me Black slang?” There, sitting on a twin XL bed in my friend’s room, the only Black person in a group of about seven, I awkwardly scratched my arm and mumbled, “No.”
“Oh, come on!” he insisted. “This is Berkeley — we’re all liberal here.” A sense of dread filled me immediately. I had decided to move across the country to escape the discomfort that I was now being confronted with. I very swiftly and silently exited the situation and decided to avoid him for the foreseeable future.
A month passed with only the usual incidents — a slip of the N-word by a non-Black floormate here, a “Black people are naturally more athletic” there. Then, one night after we had all decided to take a break from studying, another blow was dealt. One of my floormates remarked in casual conversation, “Well, it is easier for Black people to get into college.”
I couldn’t believe he was serious. Why would he say this to the only Black person on the entire floor? Did he know that he was basically attacking the credibility and deservedness of every Black person on campus? Stunned, I asked, “Can Cal even use race as a factor in admissions?” He quickly typed something into his phone, which he then shoved in my face, and said, “Yeah, see?” Unfortunately, he was right. The UC system is allowed to use race as a factor for diversification; they just can’t use quotas.
I looked around for support from the other half-dozen people in the room, but they all just gave me uncomfortable glances that seemed to say, “That sucked, but what am I supposed to do about it?”
Unfortunately, my experiences are not at all isolated. Berkeley’s Black student population has stayed at an abysmal 3 percent for the past several years. The few Black students who are here will express similar sentiments to my own, if given the chance. One anonymous third-year member of a campus Black student organization said, “Going to Berkeley, you will find that the institution is so white supremacist. It’s crazy.” Her frustration was palpable.
Her experience is worlds apart from that of an out-of-state floormate of mine (we’ll call her Jane). Jane and I were sitting down and discussing winter break: what we did, where we traveled, who we saw. She mentioned that she just didn’t feel comfortable in her conservative home state anymore. “The Berkeley Bubble is so real!” she chuckled in between bites of salad.
I had an epiphany at that moment: The “Berkeley Bubble” only exists for students who are well-represented. It is truly a tale of two campuses. Every so often, one of my friends will mention the bubble, and I try not to cringe. I had naively bought into the belief that UC Berkeley’s liberal reputation would somehow protect me from the racism I experienced in the South. Instead, I found out that it only obscures people’s view of what is really going on. To many people on campus, the thought that Berkeley’s “liberalness” does not equate to a social awareness or sensitivity is foreign. It just doesn’t cross their minds.
The “Berkeley Bubble” is a myth that allows non-Black students to feel secure in their words and actions. My experience serves as the perfect example of this illusory comfort. Why should well-represented students bother being culturally aware or politically correct or even just plain courteous when Berkeley’s liberal reputation is backing them? Many people assume that sociocultural sensitivity is a prerequisite for gaining admission to the campus. It’s Berkeley, so everyone is “woke” and well-intentioned, right? Wrong.
UC Berkeley has a real issue with its lack of Black students, but it also has a habit of sweeping issues of prejudice or discrimination under the rug. The old adage says that you must let a wound breathe in order for it to heal. Nothing will ever change if UC Berkeley’s administration and student body don’t acknowledge their deeply rooted faults. It’s high time UC Berkeley ripped off the “Berkeley Bubble” Band-Aid.
Jalen Banks is a UC Berkeley student.