Whenever I’m feeling insecure, my mom always reminds me of a story from when I was in fourth grade. I was placed in the advanced math class and instead of celebrating I came to her in tears, thinking that they had made some sort of mistake. I was a shy kid, prone to self-doubt and insecurity, and even at that age I felt like I didn’t belong within those spaces. But, as she reminds me, I ended up doing just fine.
I grew up in Newport Beach, Orange County, a place notorious for its upper-class conservatism and whiteness. In the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page for my high school, it notes that the school has been featured in the national media for “scandals involving homophobia, sexism, and academic dishonesty.” At a public high school where 75% of students are white — for perspective, the demographic makeup of all K-12 students enrolled in California public schools is 55.3% Hispanic and only 21.7% white — I look back at teachers I had and realize that very few of them were people of color, as opposed to the majority of the maintenance and service workers.
Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself living in one of the largest co-ops at UC Berkeley, Casa Zimbabwe. After reading the Berkeley Student Cooperative mission, which is to “provide a quality, low-income cooperative housing community to university students, thereby providing an educational opportunity for students who otherwise may not be able to afford a university education,” I was a bit disappointed to once again find myself surrounded by white faces. But I didn’t think much of it. I was happy to be in a space that felt so creative and alive, even if I didn’t immediately connect with everyone around me.
A couple of weeks later I found myself in the first czircle (CZ circle) of people of color, a place where non-white members of the house can get together, build community and discuss relevant issues within the house.
It was a pretty large group, larger than I was expecting, and honestly, I think that was the first time in my entire life that I was entirely surrounded by even a majority of people of color outside of a family event. Within minutes, they were bringing up issues that I hadn’t even had the words to articulate. They discussed issues of white cliques, a lack of cultural music at events, the lack of boundaries some white members of the house had and, most importantly for me, the difficulty they felt taking up space.
My mind was blown. I finally realized that this had been present throughout my whole life. The intense desire to prove the worthiness of my existence has lurked for as long as I can remember. It was a need that was incomprehensible to those around me and even to myself, something I didn’t quite understand until this moment.
It was part of why I became such a nerdy overachiever in middle and high school, and it’s part of the reason that it took me several weeks to feel like it was okay to just exist in common spaces at CZ.
It’s the reason I feel the need to justify my attendance at UC Berkeley, why I always want to scream out, “Berkeley doesn’t do affirmative action!” every time I tell someone from home where I go to college.
Growing up half-white and half-Nicaraguan, I had always sort of ignored the impact my race had on my life. I had few Nicaraguan family members in the area other than my mom. The people around me were white, and so I behaved like them, never really sharing the parts of me that were culturally different. I believed that my proximity to whiteness shielded me from the discomfort other people of color felt in white spaces. And it does, to some degree. I can recognize the privilege that growing up in a white world affords me. But I think that more than anything, I simply moved that discomfort from my conscious to my unconscious mind. However, the lack of representation around me did have an impact, even if I didn’t realize it, not only in my need to prove myself to everyone else but in other things as well; it manifested in the self-hatred I had toward my appearance, the caution with which I navigated new spaces and the altering of my personality to be friendlier and more inviting.
After this revelation, I paid closer attention to the way my white friends acted. I saw how they were able to move through the world unencumbered by an oppressive self-awareness. I think that’s part of the reason I was attracted to many of these friendships. Honestly, I admired the ways in which they could act so free.
When the systems around you aren’t built for you, it can be difficult to relax. Through this czircle, I realized that there would always be a part of me and my experience that my white colleagues could never fully understand. It’s not just surface-level things like food and music, it’s deeper things as well: family dynamics, cultural values and expectations.
In these first few months at Casa Zimbabwe, what I’ve learned more than anything is the importance of spaces intended for people of color. Beyond providing opportunities for self-development, they become spaces where people of color can organize and empower each other to fight for change. When there are issues within the house, the circle can meet to create action plans. Residents who are on the more shy side who may have a hard time speaking up for themselves can find a voice within community.
Going back home, I’m more jaded with the whiteness that surrounds me. It had always been the norm, something I never gave a second thought, but now I’ve seen an alternative. Berkeley, for all its race-related issues, is a much more diverse community than Newport Beach. I’ve seen the beauty that diversity can bring, and I now have the tools to understand the alienation I feel. I feel empowered to no longer take this feeling as a given.