As a junior transfer student, a fire always burned under my a— to make sure I would have the quintessential UC Berkeley experience in my two short years here. I went to co-op parties, pledged a fraternity, experienced the Big Game at Stanford University and gleefully participated in heated discussions in my humanities classes.
During my first semester, I attained the apex of UC Berkeley experiences when I attended the Ann Coulter protest, which had resulted from the Berkeley College Republicans’s invitation to Coulter to speak on campus.
It was a spectacle of humanity: hundreds of incensed students physically deterring anyone from entering Wheeler Hall, legions of law enforcement armed with riot shields and wide-eyed bystanders recording on their smartphones. Coulter is a morally repugnant person who I find nearly irredeemable. She was part of the reactionary wave of bigotry following September 11th, which has been foundational to my experiences with racism growing up in America as a South Asian Muslim.
However, seeing my fellow Bears’ reddened faces and furious cries gave me mixed feelings. Even though combating rhetoric such as Coulter’s is deeply personal to me, I still felt conflicted in condemning those students who were trying to hear her speak. On one hand, as a person of color, I was proud that the protestors were defending people such as myself from the propagation of harmful ideas. But I was also concerned that their aggressive approach toward the Berkeley College Republicans had extinguished the possibility of its members changing their minds, and instead pushed them to double down on their position.
I can’t say it isn’t challenging for me to distinguish between the ignorance of their beliefs and the malice of its consequences. I instinctively feel hostile toward them because they entertain ideologies that directly harm me and the people I care about. Politics isn’t something operating on the margins of our lives — it affects real people.
I remember how, during Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” — or the Executive Order banning foreign nationals from seven predominately Muslim countries from visiting the country for 90 days — I saw news of anti-Muslim sentiment spreading through the country. During those few weeks, anxiety and frustration churned in my gut. My mom wears hijab when she goes out, and my blood boils at the thought of someone harassing her for it.
My despondency wasn’t helped by my Facebook feed. My own best friend had thoughtlessly professed his admiration for the policy; here was someone I practically grew up with and considered as family, boldly expressing their support for clear prejudice. When I could no longer contain my frustration, I messaged him. “Dude, you’re an a—hole. I thought I was your friend. Do you not give a sh— about how this affects people like me?”
Such aggressiveness was one way I approached my heartbreak and disappointment. And it felt good. But ultimately, in 2020, my friend’s ballot still ended up looking the same as it had in 2016. I hadn’t done anything to effectively change his mind, and instead had engaged him in a retributional way. And yet our friendship survived the election and warring rhetoric. I didn’t see him as a fundamentally bad person, nor was he racist or Islamophobic. He simply needed to hear the reasons why what he believed in was wrong, and my initial attempt at doing that wasn’t empathetic or conducive enough to elicit such a transformative process.
I learned from that encounter that my vitriol has to be directed not toward individuals, but toward the ideas and structures that foster them. Because retribution had guided my first approach, I had created a space where it had become impossible for my friend to be vulnerable in admitting that he was wrong and in becoming my potential ally. For him, this was an arbitrary political preference. But precisely because it was so much more harmful than a mere political preference, and because he was my friend, I should’ve been more willing to perform the emotional labor and swallow my embittered feelings in order to effectively engage him. The weight of this realization, later, made me regretful. And I felt that same regret as I walked back through Sproul Plaza after the Ann Coulter protest.
My reflections aren’t a romanticized fantasy of singing “Kumbaya” with those whose ignorant ideas and prejudicial policies lead to the suffering of others. My friend, and others like him, still have to do the real work of educating themselves. From the perspective of being an educated person who acknowledges the interconnectedness of society, I feel that it can be one of the highest pursuits to perform the labor of persuading and educating others. It’s uniquely defeating as a person of color to assume the role of educator against bigotry. However, I can’t expect people to spontaneously break through the layeredness of their prejudicial viewpoints. People are fallible, and the ignorant aren’t aware that they’re ignorant.
I’m currently 26, and when I’m asked why I decided to return to school, I say that I believe in being a lifelong student. We’re all still learning. It’s important to be kind to ourselves and to others in this lifelong process. Perhaps Ann Coulter is beyond redemption, but there are students who can still be guided onto the path of truth and moral clarity.
It’s still the duty of the unwoke(n) to wake themselves up. But as a progressive liberal, I also believe that it’s my ethical duty to keep that pathway open for them and to, if possible, provide guidance as they navigate it. Maybe realizing this is what has made my UC Berkeley experience complete.