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This past January, I was sitting in my Latin American Studies class when my professor walked in wearing a pink knitted hat, with two cat ears on stitched on top. You know the one I mean. Instead of starting his typical history lecture, he started talking to the class about President Donald J. Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, saying things like, “I know I’m a professor, but I have biases.”
I looked around the lecture hall. All around me, kids were nodding and doing that snapping thing with their fingers. A lot of people were like, yeah, we’re getting our free speech on. I smiled and didn’t say anything. I knew I was outnumbered.
That’s pretty typical when you’re a Republican at UC Berkeley.
I’ve been a Republican as long as I can remember. I’m used to be surrounded by people who disagree with me. I grew up in predominantly “blue” city–Miami, Florida– and went to a liberal-leaning high school. I really like having debates and discussions about politics. That’s part of what I hoped to find when I decided to go to UC Berkeley, one of the most liberal campuses in the United States, for undergrad. But instead of discovering open-minded individuals ready to debate their views, I found myself silenced by my liberal peers. In search of political and moral support, I joined the Berkeley College Republicans at the beginning of this past school year.
Being an official member of that organization has its ups and downs. It’s nice to talk openly about my political opinions openly, but it comes with a price. When I staff the group’s table on Sproul Plaza, strangers come up to yell at me — and not in a fun “I want to debate you” kind of way. They call me a bad person. They ask me where I’m from (my family is from Cuba) and then tell me to go back there. I’ve even been physically attacked.
And you know what? I get it. The organization has a bad name on campus. Affirmative action bake sales (that was before my time), Anne Coulter speaker requests, the whole Milo Yiannopoulos thing. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a healthy dose of controversy, but in my opinion, asking “Would you rather your child get feminism or cancer” isn’t controversial, it’s horrible. I have no interest in being around anyone who is alt-right. And most people — Berkeley Republicans included — don’t actually want these extreme speakers to show up. Yes, being provocative irritates the liberal masses, which can be funny, but in the end, it’s self-promotional, not thought-provoking. Some people say Berkeley College Republicans represent the new Free Speech Movement. That’s B.S. It’s playing the victim card, which, in my mind, is something Republicans just don’t do. And yet, I remain a member of the club, because I want to change Berkeley College Republicans from the inside. Until the hard-core conservatives and liberals around me tone things down, I feel like I’m a moderate stuck in the middle, fighting for reasonable discussion on two fronts.
I understand that Republicans at Berkeley may never be the majority. I would settle just to be tolerated. The way things are now, I feel like expressing my political opinions in class would be detrimental to my education. There are certain departments on campus I’m not sure would welcome a conservative student. It’s like I’m playing a four-year game of “Would you rather.” Would I rather keep my mouth shut and get good grades, or express myself and feel ostracized from my teachers, classmates, and professors? For now, at least in class, I choose to be silent. But I hope it’s not like that forever.
I want to listen to people who are interested in backing up their opinions– even those that are different from my own–with facts and sources. But that won’t happen as long as people on campus say “Republican” like it’s a dirty word.
And yet, I have hope. Occasionally, when I spend all day tabling on Sproul, there are some individuals who will come up to me and engage in a lively conversation — a real conversation. We’ll go back and forth on the ethics of abortion, or global warming, or gun regulations. In some cases, we start agreeing and coming up with new ideas on how to tackle these issues. And in those moments, it feels like the UC Berkeley I originally came for.
Jonathan Chow recently completed his third year at UC Berkeley. He is a member of the Berkeley College Republicans and studying history. His essay was produced by Youth Radio.