When I’m Asked About Race on a Tour

As a Berkeley Campus Ambassador, I am an employee of Public Affairs paid to represent and advocate for the university while telling my own Berkeley story. One thing I love about my job is the autonomy I have to be transparent with visitors, and to honestly answer questions that are widely considered “difficult” from a public affairs perspective. I take pride in the fact that since I was hired in February 2019, I have yet to see UC Berkeley Visitor & Parent Services attempt to censor the honesty of Campus Ambassadors, especially considering we fill a role which at a school without such autonomy might amount to that of a propagandist.

The first time a Black mom on my tour asked me about the experience of Black students at Berkeley, I told her everything I could as someone who is White. I was honest in saying that Black students are underrepresented, since only 3% of UC Berkeley’s students are Black, compared to 5.8% of Californians and 8.3% of Berkeley residents. What I could not tell her was if Berkeley would support her kids and make them feel at home just like it did for me, something I do confidently for most parents of white students.

The greatest reassurance I could offer was to describe the campus resources and organizations for Black students, mentioning the Black Student Union (BSU), various Black Fraternities and Sororities, and the Black professional associations I knew of. I would also have mentioned the African American theme housing program, Berkeley’s semester exchange with the historically Black Howard University, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center. This mom’s response has stayed with me: “Thank you, I didn’t expect you to be so honest”. I assume she had asked this question on other campus tours, and I can only imagine the suite of likely responses.

I’m choosing to tell this story today because I have a platform, and as a faithful representative and advocate for the university, Ambassadors are supposed to personify Berkeley’s excellence. To me, this means responding to the call of groups like Berkeley’s Black Student Union to “Actively advocate and partake in dismantling White supremacy,” and not letting the reality in which honesty requires me to tell Black moms that their kids might not be afforded the social privileges I was while starting college, feel normal. With an eye one injustice which is particularly evident on college campuses, my newest protest sign reads:

“Repeal CA Prop 209, Equity in education now”.

Under California Prop 209, Affirmative Action (a set of policies widely considered responsible for diversifying a wide range of public institutions from 1961-1996) was banned, and minority status would no longer be a legal consideration in California university admissions.

Sadly, I have sometimes witnessed a deeply disturbing student apathy towards racial issues and social justice on campus. However, I have also been lucky enough to meet and be inspired by the type of Berkeley students who instead listens, acknowledges their privileges, and shows up as an ally. These are the students who make me optimistic, demonstrating that all of us have the capacity to become or at least actively approach the later. If you’re reading this, I hope I can impress upon you like I would with visitors on a tour, more than pat statements about Berkeley’s values and quest for equity, and instead be honest and acknowledge that both the administration and the student body have a moral obligation to actively disrupt a criminal justice and political system which continues to racialize people of color, and become better allies to Black and marginalized communities. I believe this change will begin with students.

Until that happens, I will not be the only one discussing this honestly. Sending your kids off to college is scary enough, stop contributing to a society in which the honest answers of reassurance I give to touring parents of Black students may not be as comforting as the similarly honest answers I give parents of White students. As Campus Ambassadors, our job has always been to honestly share the best Berkeley has to offer, now we must shape and become that.

Author: Violet

I'm a Physical Geography major, Cal Ballroom dancer, an undergraduate researcher in berkeley's Quaternary Paleoecology Lab, a Campus Ambassador, former co-oper, and a third year student. Born and bred in Berkeley I'm a local and a lover of backpacking, science, and nature.