In season two, episode eight of “The Sopranos,” Tony Soprano’s daughter Meadow is admitted to UC Berkeley but is prevented from attending by her traditionalist Italian, mob boss father, who considers it a school for indoctrinating students with wayward social values.
As a 10-year-old watching what is considered to be the most influential American television show of all time, I didn’t understand the context of Tony’s derision toward the school I attend today. But now I know that he was alluding to UC Berkeley’s reputation as one of the most liberal and socially progressive places in America.
Probably like most new admits, when I first arrived on campus in fall 2019, I was overwhelmed by its natural beauty and architectural splendor. Not only was I at my dream school, I was also in a safe haven as a South Asian student from suburban Michigan. At UC Berkeley, there was no shortage of people who looked like me and shared a similar cultural background.
As I gleefully trotted from what was formerly Le Conte Hall to Hearst Field Annex, Doe Library to the Campanile, the former Barrows Hall to Kroeber Hall, before finally arriving at the Bancroft Library, I didn’t have the slightest idea of the history behind these names uttered daily by students. It didn’t occur to me that such a prestigious and progressive institution in the 21st century could bear the markings of a racist, post-colonial legacy.
Only later in UC Berkeley’s very own classes did I learn that this university, like numerous others across the country, bears the vestiges of deeply racist and problematic educational agendas. The namesakes of these iconic and beautiful buildings were bequeathed to them by wealthy, bona fide ethnonationalists. UC Berkeley itself is named after an Irish slave-owning bishop.
I feel extraordinarily privileged to attend one of the best universities in the world. I’m aware that I’ve defied stupefying odds to be among the few in attendance at an elite school such as UC Berkeley. I grew up two miles from the trailer park where Eminem dined on his mom’s spaghetti, and am now among the ranks of some of the smartest and most influential people alive. Who am I to bemoan the historical injustices this school was founded upon?
Still, when I pass under Sather Gate on a daily basis, as a South Asian I almost feel I am tacitly renouncing something core to my identity. Beyond the symbolic entryway of Sather Gate stands an array of grand Greco-Roman and neo-Classical buildings that reflect European ideals of knowledge and philosophy, named and funded by prejudicial and elitist Californians of the 19th century. Despite their malicious hostility to students who looked like myself, I’m sometimes forgiving of this fact because their discriminatory perspectives may have been the result of living in an era of ignorance. But my historical relativist sympathies grow exceptionally feeble when I read about some of the despicably defiant and racist statements made by the progenitors of these buildings and of this school. It’s all a Google search away.
Colonial epistemicide — the uprooting of indigenous knowledge — trespasses, in a much more egregious way, upon the lands of my parents and grandparents. The preeminence of the English curriculum in schools throughout South Asia have students knowing lines of Jane Austen and Shakespeare, but little of the Mahabharatha or the Gitanjali.
My frustration burns when I speak in my mother tongue of Malayalam to graduates of those schools who’ve immigrated here, and they respond to me in English. Western subversion has people perceiving English as the intellectually superior language, and UC Berkeley is part of this legacy of subversion. On this indigenous land that the campus occupies and across much of the “educated” world, we speak a language endemic to a tiny island floating off of the Western coast of Europe.
In an ironically roundabout way, many of my anxieties as a person of color at UC Berkeley are addressed by the intellectual tools that the school has provided me with: knowledge about the nature of colonial states and universities as portals for colonial knowledge and, most importantly, the understanding that things aren’t static but instead amenable to change if there’s a conscious impetus for it.
I’m not sympathetic to the camp that regards taking a pry bar to the names of these buildings as a trivial pursuit undertaken by “hotheaded libtards.” Architecture is a reflection of who it was designed to be used by. Removing these names is the least UC Berkeley can do to atone for the immoral bedrock upon which it was constructed. Nonetheless, it’s a start.
Our campus is gorgeous and I’m awed that I have the opportunity to admire its beautiful Greek columns and busts of Roman deities, snapping pics in front of the Venetian bell tower for Instagram simply on my walk to class. However, when I do pause to appreciate the way the light at dusk falls onto these Athenian buildings, I’m also reminded that these seemingly insignificant aesthetics and names are actually symbols of an enduring legacy of colonization. It’s through this bittersweet lens that I can take a step toward decolonizing my own education.
Thinking back to the Sopranos, maybe if Meadow had attended Berkeley, she could’ve explained to her ethnonationalist father why he shouldn’t feel aggrieved by sentimentalist monuments of Christopher Columbus being torn down.