Don’t Say the B-Word

“Where is that zip code from?” asks the cashier from behind the register. 

“SoCal,” I chirp in a tone that’s probably too enthusiastic for the question. “But I actually go to school in Berkeley, so I spend most of my time in NorCal.” Naturally, I overshare when talking to strangers. It’s just what I do. 

“You mean the school with all those crazy liberals?” The bellow comes from an older, beer-belly man who’s next in line. “And with the naked people on the streets, right?” I begin to feel my pulse thump through the tip of my thumb. 

“Yeah, Berkeley is definitely known for its liberal students, but I’m not not like them. Protesting and the naked strolls in the street aren’t really my thing,” I reply with a nervous chuckle. The cashier senses the awkward exchange and quickly hands me my change. “Have a nice day,” I say to both of them on my way out.  

sign that says come in we're open

I walk through the gift shop doors, greeted by a burst of Florida humidity. A not-so-subtle reminder that Florida is very far from my California backyard. I replay the last three minutes in my mind, unsurprised by the interaction. UC Berkeley is always making headlines for one reason or another (and more often than not, for political purposes). What strikes my conscience is how I deliberately lied to that man. 

Sure, I’ve never made a picket sign and I’ve never run through Moffit in the nude, but I am more similar to my peers than not. I have faith in the power of social justice. I voice my opinions when appropriate. I also believe that people can be cordial, even if they don’t see eye to eye. 

Despite how strongly I identify with these things, I opted to avoid wearing my Berkeley sweatshirt on the plane ride from LA to Jacksonville. The thought of screaming “I’m a liberal” to every stranger I passed on the street just didn’t feel comforting. Silence naturally seemed like the best option. 

Person looking outside of an airplane

This is not the first time I’ve thought about how much my beliefs differ from the majority of America, but it was the first time I felt the need to alter how I presented myself to others. The United States is so vastly different beyond the confines of the California bubble. When most people on the West Coast hear that I’m enrolled at Cal, I’m greeted with a bubbly “congratulations” and a brief anecdote about their favorite memories in the Bay Area. I mention my university for the first time time in the South, and I instantly earn the label of a mentally unstable leftist. I mean, human default is to assume on a minute-by-minute basis. 

I never anticipated attending an institution that’s cited in history textbooks and bleeds activism. But with Berkeley’s hefty past, the university produces educated students that the rest of the nation doesn’t necessarily understand to their full complexity. I am not a walking spit-image of Berkeley. Berkeley is a small facet of my being. But at what point is it worth just keeping the B-word to myself?