Sister, sister

Taking summer classes during a pandemic has been exactly the headache one might expect, and I often find myself longing for campus. Sometimes, if I squint, I can see the Campanile as I stare out my window, strategically looking through the abundance of plants I have accumulated during my time in quarantine. 

To help curb my longing, I began to think about how my classes at Zoom University would have been different had they been held on campus. For one, my mental health would probably be better. Also, I don’t think I would have gained as much weight. But other than these two factors that have derailed my life, classes have been — for the most part — quite similar. 

Classes at UC Berkeley have always been difficult, but that’s what I enjoy. I like to be challenged, and if a class is too boring, the information won’t get stored in my long-term memories. This academic rigor has been consistent throughout the transition from in-person to online classes and makes the impending all-virtual fall semester that much more ominous.  

But besides the academic rigor, another aspect of college has remained steady: my mental health. To make sure I hadn’t made it all up while lockdown tightened its grip on my psyche, I went straight to my sister, who, like me, is a Black student at UC Berkeley. 

We, although close in age and likeness, are probably the two most opposite personalities you’d ever meet. (Or at least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves. I promise we aren’t twins.) She’s a headstrong debating STEM freshman who can will things to fruition — starkly different from my senioritis-induced philosophical approach to life. In short, our experiences on campus are very different. But there are shared parts of our identities — in particular, our Blackness — that produce the same experiences in life, no matter our supposed differences. We saw it in high school in our AP classes, and we knew college would be no different.  

More often than not, I consider myself lucky to attend the same college as my sister. I had my doubts at first (like any sibling would tell you) and was convinced she’d cramp my style. But to be truthful, in pre-pandemic life, I barely saw her on campus. When we did catch up, it was nice to share our experiences in full, rolling our eyes at how similar our campus experiences were just because we were Black students. Never mind that our majors and interests were completely divergent. So when I had approached her with my “I have tea” face on Zoom one day, she already knew what was up. 

“Oh yeah, no. That happens all the time.”

Microaggressions — as her sentiment implies — are a frequent occurrence, and at some point in the life of each student who’s a BIPOC, you endure this unfortunate fate. Something unique to higher education institutions, however, is the gaslighting masquerading as healthy debates, or people playing “devil’s advocate.” 

It’s one thing to see different sides of an argument, but it’s something else entirely to overlook the implicit but fundamental context of a situation — especially when it comes to questions regarding racial or social justice. Many find the concepts we discuss to be merely theories or bygone history, and can afford the luxury of discounting or disregarding these subjects.

I’m currently finishing up my race and law minor, which (no surprise) requires us to debate such complicated issues quite frequently. It’s rare at UC Berkeley that people spout subtle racism right to my face, but when they do, they’re usually not worth the work of rebutting. 

I admire my sister, though, because she doesn’t run from that fight — even at times when many, myself included, would let it fall through the cracks.

But there are moments when I fight myself about not calling people out, and I brought this quandary to her during our most recent tea-spilling session. Her answer, as many of the best are, was simple: 

“If you don’t call it out, who will? Especially when it’s directed at you, it becomes a sort of a test to see if it’s appropriate to do it again. So call it out, even when you think it’s not worth it — you save the next student the headache.”

And she was right. Over time, microaggressions perpetuate the harmful, racist status quo — even when the perpetrator thinks their words are harmless. As I’ve learned during my time in race and law (or maybe it was “Law and Order” — again, pandemic life), intent doesn’t matter. What matters is how it feels to receive it, and what action I feel comfortable taking. 

For my sister, she addresses things there and then. But for me, it’s not always so easy. Respecting your limited energy for calling out racism, knowing how to preserve a little bit of mental peace — those are subtle but radical acts of resistance, and they’re things I’m still learning. At least I have my sister to help me.

Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]


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