About 500 students, faculty and staff packed all three levels of David Saul Smith Union Tuesday night for President Clayton Rose’s “town hall” focused around the question, “Why do issues of race matter if I’m white?”
“The meeting and the question...came directly from meeting and a discussion that I had with the leaders of the multicultural groups,” said Rose in an interview with the Orient. “ I sat down with them a few weeks ago to talk about where we are, where we want to go, issues, and so forth, and out of that came a discussion about the necessity...to engage the white majority on campus.”
The “town hall” was held soon after Rose announced that he would be bringing in outside researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova University to conduct a study on the experiences of students of color at Bowdoin, and just before the BSG referendum for a Multicultural Representative. The “town hall” meeting aimed to open up these conversations in a space for the entire student body, refocusing the discussion on white student involvement.
Rose opened Tuesday’s meeting with a few general remarks. He acknowledged the importance of action, rather than just conversation, but stressed thoughtful reflection as a necessary first step.
“Before we can get at figuring out how to fix things, we have to understand them and we can’t understand them unless we talk about them. This is an issue we don’t talk about here or in America,” Rose said. “I have seen far too much easy action around some of these issues which then lead to no solution because there’s no engagement or no true understanding about the communities trying to be affected. We’re going to try...to deal with that problem at its root cause.”
Prompted by Rose’s initial question, “Why should I care about issues of race if I’m white?,” Briana Caldwell ’17 began the discussion by asking, “what is Bowdoin going to do to make Bowdoin students who are white think that that’s an important question to answer?”
After Rose turned the question back to the student body, the conversation soon shifted from Bowdoin’s responsibility to a sense of white students’ guilt, guided by Rose’s call for more white students to speak. In the back-and-forth nature of the discussion, a number of students expressed their hesitation to participate in discussions of race as a white person.
“I think there’s a fear that people will see you [as a white person] in some ways as becoming too involved in issues that you shouldn’t become involved in,” Jacob Russell ’17 said. “It is guilt. No one likes being in a setting where the race you’re associated with has to come up with actions that did happen in the past, happen every day...You have to confront many spaces at Bowdoin when you go to talk about issues of race as a minority as a white person, which is a great experience to have...but I think white students...often don’t want to put [themselves] in that situation.”
“Concerns that some of my white friends have made is that they’re really afraid of saying something wrong, that they don’t have a space that they feel like they can speak and they won’t be immediately shut down or screamed at or perceived at racist,” Emily Serwer ’16 said.
Olivia Stone ’16 responded directly to Serwer, agreeing with the fear yet urging people to move past it.
“We’re brave students, we’re smart, and we can all just take a deep breath together and get over it,” Stone said. “I also don’t think that those attacks are really going to happen. And I don’t really know why we are afraid of them, but I don’t think that my peers of color are going to attack me even though there’s this fear that they will. I don’t know where that’s coming from and I think we need to explore that a bit together.”
Adira Polite ’18 tried to reframe this fear by contextualizing people’s responses.
“I think one reason for [people being afraid of others exploding] is you only hear these voices when there’s an explosion. People wait to engage in these conversations until something has happened that has angered people.” Polite said. “If you go up to them when something has happened they’re going to be emotional...But if you go up and ask them on a normal day, you know, talk to them about these issues, then maybe you can learn something.”
This initiative, many students felt, rests with white students.
“[A student] was [saying] that students of color need to change how they talk in order to make [race] easier to talk about,” Violet Ranson ’16 said. “And the problem with that is...You can’t edit what someone’s going to say when they’re talking about how you hurt them. So it is up to white students to be able to handle that, because students of color have been handling hatred for a very long time. So it’s your job now to be able to handle hard things and handle having these hard conversations, if you’re really curious about what people have to say.”
While programming attempts to facilitate these hard conversations, the lack of white student attendance at these multicultural events reshapes the discussion.
“[At the Anonymous Speech talk on Friday] there were probably four or five white students,” Justin Weathers ’18 said. “I would just like to encourage people that these spaces are open and they’re open for students to engage in. We’re not going to attack you and we can have mature conversations about things we disagree about...There’s space for disagreement and we can overcome these things but we need people on both sides to come to the conversation.”
Daisha Roberts ’16 echoed Weathers’ call for more attendance.
“[As] a part of Af-Am we have always discussed different ways...[to] plan ways to get white people to come to our dialogues, programming, events and parties. We literally spend hours on end trying to figure out how to get more than the same 20 people that usually go to our events,” Roberts said.
Students urged each other to extend the initiative past programming as well.
“I think the conversation doesn’t always have to be about race. It’s simply with engaging with new people,” Frankie Ahrens ’18 said. “I think that’s a really powerful way to do it. It doesn’t have to be a program. It simply has to be something that we reach out and do.”
Reaching out becomes more complicated when students remain unsure of the boundaries of “group spaces.”
“I felt, as a cisgender, Latino-identifying person, that I do not belong even walking through Russworm House because I used to think of that place as exclusively a safe haven for black students,” Julian Tamayo ’16 said. “Then actually in those spaces I see all this art and these friends studying. The same thing is happening in 24 College with women and the queer community. I think it was helpful for me to think of these spaces less as exclusive to who is on the title as safe haven and actually as places of celebration. I think that opens up the space for a lot of people who consider themselves as allies.”
At the same time, some students felt these spaces occasionally need to be exclusive.
“How you can know as a white person is you ask...Af-Am parties are social spaces, so we want as many people who can fit in that space to come,” Kama Jones El ’17 said. “Especially after the sailing team incident, when those things occur that’s probably not the best time for people to be there, simply because it can interfere with how people feel confident in expressing themselves.”
Like a number of other students, Jones El spoke of the way Bowdoin exposed her to different people, an exposure best navigated through engagement.
“One of the biggest things I’m grateful for being here at Bowdoin is that I get to engage with people who I would not engage with if I was back home,” Jones El said. “The fact that people are reluctant to engage is what harms...us in terms of why we feel welcome in certain spaces and don’t feel welcomed in others. I feel like the more you interact with people, the more you can learn from them.”
Though having bowed out for most of the discussion, near the end of the hour, Rose responded to a student who called him out for suggesting that “students who identify as students of color...are one thing."
“You can call me out. You can call me out anytime you want. We may disagree about it, but you should absolutely feel free to do it," Rose said.
"I’m going to weigh into this thing, deeply. I’m not going anywhere. And I will definitely make mistakes, and I will get called out for them, and I will feel horrible about them, but it’s not going to deter me," he added. “That’s the single most important lesson I’ve learned in the much longer journey...Take a deep breath and keeping going through it and engage.”