Photos from the #ThisIs2016 photoshoot by Bowdoin’s Asian Students Association (ASA) and South Asian Students Association (SASA) went viral on Facebook, with 85,000 album shares, 5,000 individual photo shares and 18 million total views in a span of two weeks. 

ASA and SASA uploaded the photos—which are also hanging in David Saul Smith Union—to Facebook on November 18.

“My friend in Korea messaged me the other day and said she saw the album, but from her other friends, not from my status,” said ASA Secretary Arah Kang ’19, who helped organize the project. “I left for Thanksgiving break and we had just broken 100 likes. But now look at it—over 30,000! We had no idea it would leave this campus, let alone go worldwide.”

The project originally drew inspiration from a New York Times article written by Asian-American editor Michael Luo. In the article, published in October, Luo directly addresses a stranger who yelled “Go back to China!” at his family, Asian-Americans across the nation responded to Luo and his encounter by using the hashtag #ThisIs2016 and sharing their stories of confronting racism. Luo’s piece, in addition to the timing of the divisive election and No Hate November, served as inspiration for the project. 

As the project has gained an immense following, much of the attention has been directed at the comment threads on the photos. Since the subject material touches on sensitive and often controversial themes, it has elicited a wide range of strong responses, some supportive and some polemical. 

Many Facebook users argued that students involved in the project were overreacting to comments. In response to a photo of a female Indian student holding a whiteboard reading, “Are you going to have an arranged marriage?” one Facebook user commented: “It’s actually a perfectly reasonable question and anyone from India would expect another Indian to ask the same. This is not racist or bigoted in any way.” 

Other commenters supported the students and their reactions resolutely. In response to a photo of an Asian student holding a whiteboard that read, “I guess you’re pretty … for an Asian #ThisIs2016,” one user commented, “Oh my gosh, I hate this one! I get it too. ‘Oh, you’re so pretty for a dark skinned girl’ … As if because I’m dark I would automatically not be pretty.”

“We understand that posting our project publicly online is an open invite to criticism,” said Irfan Alam ’18, president of SASA. “There will always be internet trolls who will say whatever they want. Now we’re thinking of ways to respond to the comments as an organization, because so far it’s just been individuals reaching out. But it’s amazing that our message is getting out there.”

Alam was pleased to see the students’ message resonate outside of Bowdoin.

 “As I look at the photo album and all the comments, I think about how much we get stuck inside the ‘Bowdoin Bubble,’” he said. “I’m amazed at how many people—not just nationally, but internationally—understood the sentiments I expressed on my photo. We really shattered the bubble.”

At the same time, most non-Bowdoin Facebook users didn’t have the same context for the project that students did. 

“We developed the project thinking it would be seen solely by Bowdoin students,” said President of ASA Mitsuki Nishimoto ’17. “Because it’s gotten so popular, some of the context is missing and the comments might not have the clearest understanding of our goal and of who the students in the pictures are.”

Though they did not expect that they would receive such passionate responses from around the world, leaders of ASA and SASA are very happy with the following that the project has garnered and the attention it has brought to microaggressions. 

“I’ve heard these types of jokes starting in elementary school, and at that age, we don’t know how to respond to it, so we become desensitized to it,” Kang said. “People are saying ‘You must have it easy with racism, being Asian,’ but one type of microaggression is not better or worse than someone else’s. None of them are okay.”

Multiple outlets, including Upworthy, have contacted ASA and SASA in recent days to report on the ascendancy of their project. Moving forward, ASA and SASA leaders are now focusing on contextualizing their project for a broader audience. 

“The project might end with the photos, but the discussions won’t,” Nishimoto said.