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The words I should’ve said

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MARCH 17, 2023

My hands and legs won’t stop fidgeting as I’m watching this conversation unfold in front of my very eyes. I want to speak up and say something but I can’t — I’m tongue-tied. 

It was on a regular Wednesday afternoon in which I was in my political science class and allowed a fellow peer to question my entire life, my entire existence. We were covering political theory and the professor had brought up the topic of identities. At one point in the discussion, my professor asked, “What constitutes a person of color, and what effect does that have on their life?” Confident that I would be able to speak sincerely about this issue, I raised my hand almost instantly.

I began sharing how growing up as Latina, my family and I have been affected by institutionalized racism our entire lives. But, before I could even finish my sentence, another student raised his hand so aggressively he managed to shift the entire class’s focus from me to him. Eager to disagree, he started with, “First of all, you are not a person of color.” His tone was accusatory, making it seem like I was posing as a person of color and talking about fake experiences. He continued to state that he, as an Indian American with dark skin, is an “actual” person of color, effectively reducing me to my lighter skin tone. “You are white.” 

 I was so shocked to hear those words that I almost choked from breathing unsteadily. He proceeded to go on, explaining that “people of color” refers exclusively to people who have dark skin tones. According to him, only these individuals experience discrimination due to their appearance. Thus, I apparently had no right to speak on the racism people of color experience. I didn’t diminish his personal experiences with racism, but for him to assume mine rattled my core.

At this point, the entire class seemed to have their eyes glued on me in anticipation of a response. I hopelessly stared at the professor, looking for rescue from this torture. But, he didn’t rescue me. Seconds later, I realized I couldn’t move my body. My heart was racing at a pace I never knew it could reach. Sweat began dripping down my cheek — before I knew it, I was having a full on panic attack. 

After what felt like forever, the class ended and my anxiety calmed down. The only thought going through my mind was, “I didn’t realize there was a color wheel that determined what experiences I endure.” I knew he was wrong, but a part of me was scared he was right. 

Why did no one speak up? Not one person rose to defend me, consequently allowing the guy to completely obliterate me in a 2 p.m. discussion section. Without thinking twice, I called my mother and told her what just happened. I desperately needed her reassurance. As expected, she yelled at me: “Why the hell are you letting some kid who clearly has no idea what he’s talking about tell you what you have or haven’t been through? Your identity is as concrete as cement, and it’s the one thing you have that no one can take away from you.” 

She was and still continues to be right, but oh, how it hurt to feel like my identity was nothing but a hoax. Shaking it all off, I refused to let some random classmate judge me for who I am. My lived experiences are my own, and my identity is solid. After hearing those words from my mother, the only thing I felt was anger. Anger at the professor and classmates for refusing to speak up, but mostly anger toward myself for not responding to him when I had the chance. But even then, why is it my responsibility to educate people like that? Why can’t our education system eradicate these harmful misconceptions regarding racism?

But if I don’t speak up, then who will? These kinds of people could go their entire lives believing what they think is right because there isn’t anyone telling them otherwise. It doesn’t affect them, so their continued ignorance remains intact. Those of us who are underrepresented in educational discourse face the burden of having to educate what our curriculum doesn’t. The weight of this burden settles heavily on our backs. We are the only ones who truly care enough to actually do anything about it.

My passivity and anxiety became my worst enemy that day in class. My inability to speak up against discrimination ultimately altered my power to enlighten others. But, I can’t let my passivity continue to bar my potential to make a change. Much of the history of marginalized communities revolves around the silencing of our voices, which contributes to so many manipulated narratives today. 

Our voices and existence on this campus only make as much of an impact as we foster. We must break this recurring cycle of silencing and ignorance that so heavily dictates our ability to move towards awareness of our identities on campus — not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of future generations as well. We each have a responsibility to change the course of discussions so that our lived experiences are acknowledged to the fullest extent. Our representation matters. 

Keylin Vasquez writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

MARCH 17, 2023