While I was working on a problem set in my room during my sophomore year, my peers were hosting a “gangster rap” party on the other side of campus. I did not go to SuperSnack, but I received several texts about some students wearing suspicious, stereotypically “gangster” clothes—baggy pants, gold chains and even cornrows. I was shocked and confused to say the least. What do my peers think of me, if they are so quick to embody racial stereotypes for a “fun” party theme? Do they see all Black people as “gangsters?” Don’t they realize “gangster” stereotypes reduce Black people to traits of being uneducated, low-income and violent? I felt disrespected that my hard work to be a successful student was clouded by their confused perceptions of my Blackness.
Fast forward to brunch early this semester. I joined a meeting with several other seniors who decided it was finally time to acknowledge and discuss the events of our sophomore year with a panel (see Justin Weathers’s Op-Ed from March 2). Selected based upon our varied perspectives and participation in the bias incidents, we started by sharing our individual roles in the parties. My mouth dropped when I heard that I was sitting right next to Harrison, the guy who wore cornrows that night. Rather than trying to excuse himself, he recalled his process of learning from his mistake. He was open about his initial disregard of the party theme’s severity and shared his introspection over the last two years about how he had affected other people. It was a challenging discussion for him, but he truly changed my personal reconciliation of the events. I saw white people wearing cornrows as a disregard for Black culture, especially since I would be perceived as “ghetto” or “unprofessional” wearing the same hairstyle. Harrison’s sincerity made me reconsider this. I appreciate how upfront and honest he was about his experience, considering I was openly angry at him two years ago.
All of us were ready to dive into this panel because we understood the importance of vulnerability for productive conversation. This is how we learn to become better people, leaders and allies. In these weekly brunches, we came to the conversation knowing that we were all processing these events even two years later. We came together because we believed it was still possible to change how Bowdoin’s community understands race and acknowledges incidents of bias. Each one of us shared how important communication across difference fosters growth and learning. Harrison in particular encourages me to reflect on my own frustration and disappointment. He reminds me that none of us know all the answers to racial biases, but we can strive for understanding and consciousness.
Bowdoin has changed a lot since my sophomore year. We have had an increase of student-led events about identity and more administrative contributions that have brought opposing sides into “conversation.” While it is easy to say that we stand against inequality, I rarely see people taking initiative to partake in activism on a daily basis.
This panel was supposed to be a new beginning for both the Class of 2018 and Bowdoin. On both an administrative and student level at large, there have been active participants in making conversations about race more relevant on campus. However, the Class of 2018 has not been as vocal. We have been in a unique position in our four years; we have witnessed the most recent episodes of cultural appropriation parties, and we have experienced the College’s response. Members of our class who were active participants in those events could have been active role models in reconciling their mistakes to model for the rest of campus. We could have worked together to push expectations so that all Bowdoin students care about difference. Maybe we would have made Bowdoin a supportive and inclusive space to live up to the Common Good, but we failed to do so. In fact, our attempt to bring opposing opinions together about the events of our sophomore year was deliberately stopped by members of the senior class. Maybe it is too late for the Class of 2018 to fix our own resistance to change, but I hope that people will reconsider the power of engaging across different perspectives in their lives beyond Bowdoin. As I have learned from Harrison, everyone has something to gain, and we can all learn from each other. I hope that through these articles and conversations, the Bowdoin community will reflect on how we can progress to a more inclusive and socially aware campus.
Catch me at brunch with Harrison, Kevin, Nora and Justin this weekend to continue the conversation.
Rebkah Tesfamariam is a member of the Class of 2018.