‘What I was promised is not what I’m seeing’: Black students recount campus experiences

Zainab Ali/File

Black students make up about 3 percent of the undergraduate student population at UC Berkeley — roughly 1,000 out of the more than 30,800 undergraduates enrolled as of fall 2018, according to campus-reported data.

This means a Black student can go through an entire day without seeing another Black student, which happened to ASUC Senator Amir Wright on Tuesday, when he recounted that he hadn’t seen another Black person on campus all day.

“It puts things in perspective,” Wright said. “It makes you feel like you’re in this little, tiny box and there’s no one around to share that experience.”

This reality was emphasized recently in a study published in September by the University of Southern California, which found that UC Berkeley is the worst of all UC campuses when it comes to equity for Black students. Using data from the 2016-17 school year, the study found that only 1.9 percent of the undergraduate population identifies as Black.

After the study was released, Chancellor Carol Christ met with the ASUC Senate, where she suggested using donations to support Black students.

Despite the campus’s 150th anniversary homecoming celebrations, some students feel that the campus has not progressed. Former ASUC president and current fifth-year senior zaynab abdulqadir-morris said they feel that the campus is “frozen in time,” which is good for sentimentality but not for progress.

“There is no equity of student experience on campus,” abdulqadir-morris said. “Consistently, certain groups have worse times here and they did … years ago, and they’re still saying the same thing.”

abdulqadir-morris also noted how UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley’s narratives of being progressive go against the reality that they have seen while existing on campus — a reality that abdulqadir-morris said, after more than four years, they are still trying to understand.

Campus freshman Ahmad Mahmuod said that while students who are represented by the majority are proud to go to Cal, he felt that this narrative can overlook the students who are not happy with their experiences.

“It’s nice to see that you love Cal … when you are the majority on campus,” Mahmuod said. “They’re so blind to the fact that there are students here who hate it, who don’t want to be here, who have the complete 180 experience. That’s another problem, too; we’re not visible.”

Mahmuod and campus freshman Kyndall Dowell noted that one reason they chose to attend UC Berkeley was the campus and city’s reputation for political involvement. But both recounted microaggressions that they have dealt with since coming to campus, such as fellow students in their residence halls choosing to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator with them.

Dowell said they felt like they inherited the fight and struggle with having to switch between celebrating the resilience of Black students on campus and fighting for visibility. They described it as “joining the struggle” to increase retention rates.

While other students get to “live their best college life,” Dowell said they did not get those chances, because they felt that they had to continuously advocate for increased visibility.

“It’s really a hard process … to not only go through and move through this campus as Black, with your multiple identities and intersections, but also to learn how to combat all of those things at once, and being able to switch your own narrative from being the last soldier — the one to carry on in this fight — to being the carefree, Black, happy spirit that you would … really want to be — just like how your peers are,” Dowell said.

To campus sophomore Nicole Anyanwu, campus is an isolating environment, and she also mentioned that she would like to see more Black faculty in STEM fields. She noted how being recruited to campus and then becoming a student felt like “what I was promised is not what I’m seeing.”

Campus senior Dominick Williams said he holds issue with homecoming celebrations going on while there are so few resources for Black students on campus, contributing to homelessness, food insecurity and mental health issues, which result in a smaller Black student population. Williams also pointed out concerns with how the campus dealt with “Free Speech Week” — hundreds of police officers were brought onto campus to provide security, but Williams said this made students feel unsafe.

Williams also noted that the USC study “was not something that was a surprise,” and validated what Black students have been saying for years.

“Speaking as myself, I think it’s important for Black students to not be complacent in this time, and to get involved, and to make it better for the next generation of Black students,” Williams said.

Contact Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SakuCannestra.