Before Spring Break, roughly 200 students, faculty and staff took part in a demonstration called "I am Bowdoin." Participants processed from the Polar Bear statue into Smith Union with duct tape on their mouths, one by one pulling off the tape and professing a statement about themselves followed by the phrase "I am Bowdoin," intending to signify that though students have multifaceted identities, they are all part of the same community.
The demonstration followed a public meeting of students, staff and faculty addressing the March 1 bias incident in Coles Tower. At the gathering a number of students candidly voiced their experiences of feeling unwelcome and unsafe on campus and in Brunswick. The "I am Bowdoin" event was powerful by virtually all accounts. But for many observers and even demonstrators, the message was not entirely clear. What, exactly, was this act protesting?
Though the lines were blurry, it is of this board's opinion that at the base of "I am Bowdoin" was a simple message: not all of us are comfortable here. It is undoubtedly the sentiment coming from our peers. And it is a particularly hard pill to swallow when we recognize that the basis of the discomfort often arises from racial and sexual differences.
The protest was an attempt to communicate to the greater student body that there are those in the Bowdoin community who do not feel comfortable here, but in many ways its message was primarily seen and heard only by those already concerned with the problem. And it may be easier to act as if the issue does not exist, or that it came and went with the last chant of "I am Bowdoin" in Smith Union. It is hard to know exactly what to make of the demonstration, or what to think of the significance of the bias incident meeting without having witnessed them.
From the discussion, it was clear that the discomfort felt by many minority members of the Bowdoin community stems from two separate sources: from within the College and from Brunswick. It is important, as students and administrators have communicated, to remember that these sources are distinct. As students, we have the opportunity to work to improve relations within both communities, but should be mindful of our audience and what exactly we hope to achieve with any measures of advocacy or actions we take.
Most students of our generation have grown up being told that we are equal regardless of skin color or sexuality—that such distinctions are superficial. This ethos has played a tremendous role in making the U.S. a more just and fair society. But in our effort to prove our tolerance, we have downplayed difference. If we call attention to the way in which someone's race or sexuality has made them experience discrimination, one almost feels complicit in the construction of barriers, as if we are contributing toward the categorizations that fuel prejudice in the first place.
Our egalitarian values have improved the way we treat each other, but they have rendered it difficult for us to discuss difference. If the Bowdoin community is going to seriously confront discrimination, we must be brave enough to acknowledge what we do not share in common, and resist falling into the trap of equating the recognition of difference with discrimination. It can be extraordinarily painful to ask someone how they are discriminated against or made to feel unwelcome. We don't expect it is easy for students to open up to each other. But demonstrations like "I am Bowdoin," ought to have a direct purpose. And our academic studies of difference can only get us so far. If we can listen—try, however uncomfortable it might be, to consider how race and sexuality are lived here on campus—we will edge closer toward becoming a more inclusive community.
The editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient's editorial board, which comprises Nick Daniels, Piper Grosswendt, Linda Kinstler and Seth Walder.