After discussing my last article detailing the performative allyship that happens on social media, my editor told me that while my article was precise and interesting, it was not as forward as he had expected. Here we are in the midst of civil unrest, where I spend my days constantly writing and detailing the injustices that I and so many others face as Black women in the United States, but when it came to academia, I needed my editor to reassure me to go harder. This made me wonder why I hadn’t done so in the first place.
To help me reflect, I’ve been sitting here reading past “Cal in Color” articles. While I don’t intend to invalidate these authors’ experiences, nor dismiss their very valid claims, I noticed that each left me feeling how I felt after reading my first article: Nobody addresses the elephant in the room. Don’t get me wrong: Each and every piece is important and valid, speaking to individual experiences that deserve to be heard. I’m not telling anyone how they should feel, or how to address the hardships and inequities that affect people of color in the United States.
But past columns have titles such as “Model minority” and “Get that cap and gown” — but don’t address the heart of these issues. What are we really saying? It’s time to let go of the courtesy of writing tepid, gentle pieces. They’re sugarcoated, nice and palatable. The paragraphs all have carefully crafted language that doesn’t step on any toes, and they hold back the core of our experiences to fit into the publishing status quo of institutions such as UC Berkeley. We reflect on what we can do to address our problems, without addressing the dismal history beneath them.
Why do we as students of color do this? We attend one of the most ostensibly liberal universities in the country, yet restrict ourselves to expressing only what’s “acceptable.” We tell stories that we know to be safe and easily received: We denounce racial stereotypes, describe the struggle of being a person of color at a very white university and express how we’ve learned self-love. We write college essays that exploit us for our achievements and trauma, in return for schools to only accept small percentages of our underrepresented communities. We write in newspaper columns created to spotlight that there are, in fact, other perspectives besides those of the white majority. Yet still we take into consideration what they want to hear.
We never mention the lack of accountability. We don’t call out the UC system for its grave, persistent disregard. Why do we have to be continuously uncomfortable walking into so many majority-white classes? Why are we forced to sit in buildings named after slave owners? Why must we walk past rows of police cars to get to campus? These systems gatekeep academia in the hope of intimidating those on campus, and they blind us to their injustices because we were “lucky enough” to be accepted.
The experiences of isolation, racism and uneasiness at universities and other institutions perfectly reflect how these institutions were designed; these experiences aren’t because we couldn’t “find where we fit in” fast enough. What happens is not simply the result of people stereotyping, and our lives will not be suddenly better once we receive our prestigious degrees. The problems that we face, especially as Black students, are institutional and systemic.
We write about our experiences with racism in every column, but don’t call out the systems that create this harm. We don’t call out how they perpetuate the harmful consensus that our pain is temporary and surmountable — if only we work hard enough, get over our impostor syndrome, ignore the few bad people who say bad things and persevere, we can make loads of money to lift ourselves out of our problems.
Administrators and those in power count on marginalized students only addressing the surface and voicing only superficial criticisms in hopes that no real work ever has to get done. They rely on our silence to keep the status quo of places like UC Berkeley without taking any truly radical action.
In retrospect, I noticed that while writing my first article, I kept subconsciously diluting my message based on what I thought people wanted or expected to read in a Daily Californian column. I’ve avoided topics or used coddling language — both here in the newspaper and in my essays for classes — on issues that systemically disadvantage people of color. I think that in itself exposes the extent of a major problem, and to be honest, I’m tired.
I wanted to write “Cal in Color” to create real dialogue on what it actually means to be a Black woman at UC Berkeley, and doing so requires the invocation of uncomfortable radical topics that I will not ignore or honey-coat to avoid readers’ discomfort.
If UC Berkeley truly wants to put in the work to become the place it claims to be, it will start by addressing the systemic neglect of students of color. Far more than 3.5% of UC Berkeley students should be Black. The administration must work to uplift Black voices — in all our authenticity — and encourage systemic change that allows us to freely be, and write, who we are.
Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]