On Monday evening, as the sun began to dip below the horizon, hundreds of students, faculty and staff gathered on the quad in front of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. On the Museum steps stood leaders of the Asian Students Alliance (ASA), other students who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander (API), faculty and staff affiliated with the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and individuals and groups of allies, including the Native American Student Association (NASA) and the Black Student Union (BSU).
A few minutes after 6:30 p.m., as students huddled with their pods to protect themselves against the wind, Emily Ha ’21 and ASA co-president Kevin Chi ’21 addressed the crowd from the Museum steps.
“Thank you so much for joining us today, both here and online via livestream, as we come together to process and grieve the acts of hatred and violence that have targeted Asians and Pacific Islanders,” Ha said.
Ha then rang a hand bell eight times, commencing a vigil in honor of the eight individuals murdered in the Atlanta shootings on March 16, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
The group assembled on the steps proceeded to share personal stories, poems, statistics and music in response not only to the rise in hate crimes against API individuals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in America last March, but also to anti-API discrimination that many had been enduring throughout their time at Bowdoin without recognition from non-API individuals.
“I think a lot of times, race issues surrounding Asians and Pacific Islanders are something that goes a bit invisible or something that people don’t pay enough attention to,” Chi said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “So seeing the whole community … showing up for this, finding it impactful and learning something from the vigil—that was really meaningful.”
“I don’t think it really hit us how many people were coming here to show support or find healing or to just be in that space until we saw all those people,” Ha said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. Being able to come together and see everyone and also realize that I was surrounded by people that were supportive was a great feeling.”
“I don’t think I’ve been on a campus with something like that—with something organized like that—so it was really a special moment,” said Brandon Cartagena ’21, chair of diversity and inclusion for the Bowdoin Student Government, in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
After the opening remarks, Chi, Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang and Associate Dean of Upperclass Students Khoa Khuong spoke. Both Chiang and Khuong focused their remarks on the history and current presence of anti-API racism in the United States, with Khuong reading remarks from author Matthew Salesses that addressed how racism against API individuals is often seen differently and even tolerated more by non-API people than other kinds of racism.
Chi read a poem by Margaret Rhee titled “Nectarines” in which Rhee discusses her experiences as a Korean-American. Her words had resonated with Chi when he first encountered the piece at a poetry workshop during his sophomore year.
“I thought it was just really appropriate for the theme of this vigil and the message we were trying to put across,” Chi said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And it was a message that also hit home for me and made me feel proud of my identity, too, so it was really meaningful for me to be able to read this poem in front of a large crowd.”
Afterward, A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences Nancy Riley spoke about allyship as a “white American committed to racial justice,” and Anam Shah ’21 and Flora Hamilton ’21 performed a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” that focused on the experiences of Indigenous people and other people of color in the United States. Amanda Cassano ’21, a leader of NASA, then read a conversation between two API women—Cathy Park Hong and Chanel Miller—in which they processed their feelings about the Atlanta shootings and anti-API discrimination during COVID-19.
“As non-Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, it is our responsibility to amplify AAPI voices and stand against legacies of colonial oppression,” Cassano said at the vigil.
Afterward, Stanley F. Druckenmiller Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies and Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Inclusion Dharni Vasudevan read a piece written by John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Asian Studies and English and ASA advisor Belinda Kong, Kyubin Kim ’24 and Daniel Chi ’24, all of whom are not in Bowdoin’s testing program but took an active role in planning the vigil.
“I don’t think I’ve ever co-authored a piece with students, so that was a first for me,” Kong said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I’m super happy about doing it.”
“It was just really powerful and a very emotional and touching piece, and I was very honored to be able to read that on their behalf,” Vasudevan said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I practiced it a lot—I cried every time, so I was very worried about crying, and then I told myself that I might cry, and that was okay.”
Finally, Ha read a piece she had written in which she shared a combination of statistics about anti-API discrimination and personal anecdotes about how she had been impacted by it. She discussed a recent phone call with her parents, during which they had told her to “stay safe” six times in half an hour.
“I ended that call by thinking, ‘they said be safe so many times,’ and that was just ricocheting around my brain, and I was like, ‘this is representative of the landscape of fear that’s formed as a result of all the AAPI hate and violence and stuff that’s been affecting people on this campus,’” Ha said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
After the vigil, a small group of students attended an in-person debrief in the backyard of 30 College. Many shared personal stories of having been a target of anti-API discrimination, both on campus and in Brunswick. For some of the group, these experiences were made more painful by a sense of invisibility—something organizers hoped the vigil would help remedy.
“I’ve had at least six different students come up to me over the last two, three weeks having encountered racism while they’re walking downtown,” said Chi, who himself has encountered anti-API discrimination both on and off campus, in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “So I do hope our vigil did … tell people that this isn’t something that just happens on television or other places in the U.S.”
Multiple vigil organizers shared a hope that this renewed awareness would be coupled with follow-through in the form of change on the community and institutional level.
“I think the thing I left with was what Chi said at the end: ‘What are you going to take away from this?’” Benje Douglas, associate vice president for inclusion and diversity, said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And I think [what] I took away from it [is that] we have a lot of power in our community to make sure these things don’t happen, but we can’t be complacent and just assume that they won’t.”’
Douglas also emphasized that he was available to talk to any students who had experienced any kind of bias incident, either on or off campus. He said that he was available to just listen or help open an investigation into the incident, with the ultimate aim of identifying the perpetrator, taking steps to educate them on the impact of their actions and ensuring that they are not able to commit them again.
Vigil organizers emphasized that a broader increase in community awareness about the issues faced by API individuals was needed as well.
“I really hope that this is a moment where we can have some transformation of institutional culture and campus culture, because I know a lot of Asian American students, colleagues, staff—I’ve heard across the board that they felt so invisible in the days after the Atlanta shootings, where people didn’t reach out, nobody mentioned it or asked how they were doing, which compounded the sense of the trauma, the pain, to feel like it wasn’t even recognized,” Kong said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “So I hope that the energy people brought to the vigil—they can take that forward into the future.”
Douglas, Kong and Vasudevan, as well as student organizers, are exploring next steps. Those include having Bowdoin students and employees take a bystander training course and creating more formal processes for sharing lists of students who have been trained to support those who are victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. Most importantly, though, they all stressed the significance of institutional follow-through, especially from those in leadership roles.
“There’s definitely a racial reckoning happening in America right now, and Bowdoin cannot exempt itself from that racial reckoning,” Ha said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.