We Been Knew: A Reflection on the Reproduction of ‘Knowledge’, People as Subjects, and the Role of Academia in Dismantling and Rebuilding Itself as an Ally for Justice

By: Emily Ramirez, Edited by: Sommer Iqbal

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison

This photo is of the author Emily’s grandmother’s hands.

Navigating academia, especially a graduate public policy program increasingly focused on advancing racial and socioeconomic equity, at the intersection of being a person of color and from a low-income economic background is … interesting. And by interesting, I mean a multi-layered conscious experience wrestling with self-reflection, cognitive dissonance, and the internal battle between the urge to choose comfort and socioeconomic safety over institutional disruption – to name a few things. I know I am not alone in these feelings.  

Many of my classmates exist at the intersection of historically oppressed identities and, like me, have been the target audience for advice from teachers, mentors, and family members advocating for academic institutions like Berkeley as the golden ticket out of corners of the legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, and unrestrained capitalism back us into. Corners like minimum wage jobs, under-resourced communities, and familial patterns of poor health outcomes.

So, we get in. We enter Berkeley and other institutions that grant us access to worlds of networks we never knew existed and gain the power and pull of having @berkeley.edu trail our last names in our email addresses. In the eyes of many outside the realm of academia, this is our happily ever after. We walk into the ivory tower and are churned out with guaranteed access to good jobs and happy lives. We have been transformed into official advocates of social good. 

But what happens inside this tower? What does this alchemy entail, and who is the alchemist? What and who officiates the knowledge disseminated and materializes it into the power to make decisions that impact others’ lives?

I find myself unable, and more recently, unwilling to escape this liminal space and the questions it dredges up. I think they matter. 

On any given day in my grad program, I might attend a lecture where we spend hours learning formulas that “prove” to us (and which we, too, are expected to utilize) that differences in the frequency and outcome of police stops or higher interest rates in mortgage loans are, in fact, not attributable to unbiased factors but rather attributable to discrimination. 

But many other students of color and/or students from low-income economic backgrounds and I don’t need a formula to know this. We grew up with advanced payday lenders on every other block. Turn the music down when we drive through white neighborhoods.

And it is in these moments of ivory tower alchemy that I ask whether and to what extent the traditional pedagogy of academic institutions is more a barrier than a gateway. If we bar the majority of people who are intimately wise on issues of racism, inequity, and their needs through selectivity and then name their experiences for them via jargon that is inaccessible to them, can we claim that we are centering equity? Can equitable ends be produced without equitable means?

How can we strengthen our discernment between tools that move us toward racial equity in public policy and tools that keep us repeatedly explaining that we have been and continue to be exploited? How can Berkeley systematically integrate and validate other forms of knowledge outside of academia that have deep roots in historically marginalized communities? 

Many of my friends at the Goldman School are pushing for these questions to be heard. I think the future of Berkeley’s continued position as an incubator for social justice and allyship rests on its capacity to engage in this struggle in partnership with its increasingly diverse student body.

This is an essay of questions to which I don’t have definitive answers. Still, I hope it has invoked the catharsis of naming the feelings and the dimensions of learning that aren’t listed on our curricula. I urge anyone who has felt resonance with these feelings to keep feeling them. 

If we resist the urge to nestle into comfortability by choosing to opt out of the dissonance between our two worlds and instead choose to continually wrestle with the liminal space between them, we can disrupt and realign institutions and programs so that equity is not an afterthought, a formula, or a keynote session, but a guiding principle in the fabric of our policy design.

Emily Ramirez is a visual artist, poet, Los Angeles native, and first-generation college graduate. As someone who experienced homelessness and financial instability herself, Emily is guided by the principle that living wages, accessible healthcare, quality education, and affordable housing are not only possible, but necessary for the collective wellbeing of all people and for the attainment of justice for historically marginalized Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. At Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, Emily is learning to leverage economics, legislative analyses, political processes, unions, and urban planning as tools toward justice. Emily received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from California State University Los Angeles and wrote her senior honors thesis on the impacts of mass incarceration in South Central, LA.