Existing in white-dominated spaces

Cal in Color

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Trailing my rickety-wheeled, bulging suitcase through Oakland International Airport in fall 2019, I felt a surreal hitch of hope. A few months prior, I got an email that read, “Get ready to move into Casa!” Casa Joaquin-Murrietta is a co-op for UC Berkeley students of color. It was the first non-white-dominated space I would live in, as I grew up being the only person of color in my family. I didn’t realize how much I needed that space until I tried it.

Upon casually revealing my ethnic background in conversation, I’m usually met with a slight head tilt or an infinitesimal jump of the eyebrows. Afghan-Ukrainian is not something one expects. I grew up in Kharkiv, knowing only the Ukrainian half of my family. When I was little, I imagined myself as a brown tea stain on an immaculate, alabaster surface. For the 10 years that I spent there before immigrating to the United States, I can count on my fingers the times that I saw another Brown face. A face like mine. 

That made Casa a massive culture shock. One day, I overheard a housemate describe an unsettling interaction she had with a white woman and how it threw off her entire day. I remember feeling mildly surprised, as this was not a conversation I’d ever hear at home. 

I was expected to avoid such topics as a courtesy to my white relatives. If I did try to bring them up, my mom was quick to remind me that I’m half-white, was raised by a white family, lived in a white community and therefore should not be so “divisive.” In her view, I had no reason to complain about racial issues because, “You’re just like us!” 

After years of teetering awkwardly around the brink of discussing race, Casa felt like a feast of BIPOC-centered discourse. Wednesday evenings were reserved for housewide workshops in the living room: Everything from the impact of climate change on communities of color to alumni guest speakers sharing their experiences in the workforce to self-defense training geared specifically toward women of color. 

These conversations also happened organically — an anecdote between bites of dinner, an impromptu venting session in the hallway, coming home to my roommate laughing about the fleetingly bewildered glances she got on the bus when speaking Urdu on the phone with her parents.  

After having been socialized to not mention race-related microaggressions, to tuck them away and try to ignore them, it was liberating to hear them discussed so openly. By hearing my housemates reflect on their experiences, I felt seen. For the first time, I felt like I was not alone. 

When describing the Casa community, one of my housemates said, “When I’m here, I feel like I don’t need to explain anything.” This statement stuck with me. Throughout my childhood, in my mostly white friend groups, I felt saddled with the invisible responsibility of being the mouthpiece for nonwhite perspectives that would otherwise be sidestepped in our discussions. 

I spent my teenage years in a liberal, urban neighborhood in Southern California. It wasn’t that no one wanted to talk about race — no one got around to bringing it up, at least until I or another person of color did. I was always silently asking myself, “How does race figure into this discussion? Should I try to insert it?” I felt responsible for interjecting my Brown girl perspective into political and social debates because I thought I owed it to my identity. 

Over the summer, while Skyping with my Ukrainian family, I attempted to justify my going to Black Lives Matter protests despite their disapproval. I’d clumsily argue with a handful of relatives from a homogeneously white society, who all believe that racism does not exist. I felt outnumbered. I know that it’s not my obligation to educate them and it shouldn’t be. But if I, one of the few people of color my family interacts with, doesn’t do it, who will? 

For people of color, being in predominantly white spaces requires a degree of emotional labor that we don’t always realize we’re exerting until we find ourselves in spaces where we can simply exist. It shouldn’t be a privilege to live in an environment where you don’t have to explain or justify yourself, where everyone already understands or is at least trying to — it should be a right. 

In a white-dominated institution such as UC Berkeley, we need to talk about the emotional labor that students of color inevitably undertake to simply exist here. We need to normalize starting these conversations collectively rather than waiting for underrepresented students to start them. We need to create more communities and safe spaces where students of color can live without the pressure of constantly needing to act as spokespeople or representatives for their entire racial or ethnic identities.

That year, I spent winter break in Ukraine, visiting my family. At the dinner table, over Babushka’s steaming borscht and homemade bread, my family members regarded me with blank stares as I made fragmented attempts at explaining Casa, the concept of spaces of color and racial justice. After some awkward “Ohs,” I fell silent. They changed the topic. 

A month later, I scurried back up the red brick front steps of Casa with my bulging, rickety-wheeled suitcase and a growing grin. Through the dining room windows, I could already see my housemates, congregating, talking, existing. I was home.

Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]