If you were hurt by the “gangster” party, I have a sincere question for you about how we move forward. Do you want an open exchange of ideas, or do you want a strict condemnation of the participants? And in a broader sense, do you want me to openly express my own ignorance so I can learn from it, or do you want me to not say things that could hurt you even if I don’t understand why? ​

From President Rose’s inauguration speech to Caroline Martinez’s Orient article last month, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the need to have substantial conversations about injustice. But to be frank, I’m a little confused by these calls to action. Is that really what we want? Because if it is, if we actually commit to airing out our racism like dirty laundry, we need to admit that it’s going to be a terrible experience.

It would undoubtedly foster understanding and progress for the community, but we would hear a lot of things we don’t want to hear. If we succeeded in engaging the people on campus who don’t care about cultural appropriation in an open conversation, that list of racially charged Yik Yaks that has been spreading around Facebook would be instead vocalized in public. It would be a barrage of racism on our campus.

But that’s what uncomfortable conversations look like. They accept that sometimes racist things need to be said out loud in order to be changed. And while that’s what we claim to want, the campus’s current tactic is not to air them out, but to put them in a tiny box out of sight.

We tell people, “We don’t say those things here,” deem opinions unacceptable and communicate to our student body, “If you think this, you need to hide it.” It makes it nicer in public, but dirty laundry in a closed space festers. We see it leaking out into Yik Yak, where people’s mild skepticism of cultural appropriation is transformed into hate speech.

In his email to the Bowdoin community, Dean Foster wrote about the need to be uncomfortable, the need to have "open and honest" exchanges "where we listen as much—or perhaps even more—than we speak." But he also deems the "gangster" party “narrow, stereotypical,” and “deeply disturb[ing].”

Isn’t there a contradiction there? How can we have have an open exchange of ideas when we’ve already decided that one side is right and the other is wrong? That's not a exchange of ideas, that’s an instruction.

So do we want a conversation or a condemnation? 

We can imagine two visions of Bowdoin. In the first, for the sake of genuine conversation, we take the idea seriously that cultural appropriation is not a big deal. It’s hard, but these upsetting conversations result in the white people on this campus better understanding and empathizing with the experiences of people of color. Yet by choosing to air out ignorance, we've forced the people of color on campus to listen to the depths of racism that we know exists here. We've forced them to patiently educate their oppressors.

In our second vision of Bowdoin, we create clear lines of what is and isn’t okay. People of color deal with much less racism in public settings and are able to live their day-to-day lives freer from microaggressions and the constant weight of racism. But the underlying problems persists and the prejudice lives behind closed doors. The “gangster” party attendants know not to go to Super Snack in costume, and everything seems fine until you look at Yik Yak.

What Bowdoin do you want?

As a white guy, I don’t think I’m the right person to say what’s best for the people of color on this campus. But I don’t think we can have it both ways, and I think we need to consider this question seriously. Before we can make progress, we need to decide what it looks like.