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Context speaks: why I stand firm on renaming the Orient

April 23, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Last week, Bowdoin alum Kevin Ma posted a response to my op-ed, “Rename the Orient.” Ma makes some excellent points about the need for people to truly hear Asian stories and voices. I wish to elaborate further on these points, as well as address his and others’ arguments against my piece.

The most common counter-arguments to renaming the Orient that I’ve seen in response to my op-ed are arguments of context. Latin etymology, the intent that went into the initial naming of the Bowdoin Orient, the fact that it’s a newspaper—all of these arguments miss the point. It doesn’t matter what the word “Orient” once meant; what matters is what “Orient” has become.

Because I feel I must address this, and in doing so, address the absurdity of the fact that I feel like I have to prove myself so that my argument is taken seriously: I’ve done my research. I’ve taken Latin classes at Bowdoin and studied etymology in my English courses. I’ve interacted with the word “Orient” in different geographical, temporal and linguistic settings and interpreted it each time accordingly. For instance, though I still adopted a critical lens, I read the use of “Orient” in Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” with a different set of expectations than I would have for a play written today. I’ve done the work and made my case, and I ask to be taken seriously for it.

The Bowdoin Orient is an organization that operates within a majority white institution located in one of the whitest states in a country gripped with white supremacy. In the United States today, contemporary uses of the word “Orient” can only be understood in terms of Orientalism because a history of codified racism against Asians has delivered us to this point. This is the context in which the Bowdoin Orient rests. Whatever intent once existed in its name is now far removed from its reception, separated by 150 years and by all that has happened in the space between.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. We cannot pretend that Bowdoin and its history are isolated from the history of this country. We are all entangled in this web of interconnection; historical evidence, present statistics and, yes, the personal experiences of myself and other API students are linked, inextricably, to the fact that the Orient is currently named the Orient. Ma’s anecdote about contexts for the phrase a “chink in the armor”—as a deliberately racialized wordplay versus a reference to medieval knights—does not translate to the Orient because the Orient is an institution, not a single incident of word choice.

Context is important, but while incidents can be contextualized at their moments of occurrence, as an institution, the Orient must contend with the many contexts that have existed throughout its entire 150-year history. Every new issue of the Orient represents a re-choosing of its name. This continues, even though our understanding of the word “Orient” has changed drastically since 1871. We have to recalibrate and consider current contexts. I’m not saying that we need to read the original naming of the Orient through the lens of racism; I’m saying that, given present circumstances and meanings, we must read its recurrent use in this way.

Context exists on micro and macro levels. Context is geographical and temporal. I made my case because we are where we are: at the present time. Instead of my own words, I could fill this page with all the incidents of hate crimes I’ve read about in the news in the past year—people being harassed by neighbors and passerby, elderly folk beaten on the street, toddlers stabbed in a Sam’s Club. Atlanta. Indianapolis. I could also fill this page with all the hate incidents you won’t read about in the news—the stories that go unreported. Here, on this campus. Among my API friends, almost everyone I know has a story. There have been microaggressions and macroaggressions. I know a person who was harassed for his Asianness as he walked through town with his father the first time they came to Brunswick. People who’ve had cars full of people follow them as the passengers inside shouted racial slurs. Or passerby, doing the same. In town. On Maine Street. On Longfellow Avenue. On this campus, and on College Street and Coffin Street. There are people who were harassed in their own dorm buildings. People who have been targeted by their professors. People who have been diminished or dismissed or fetishized or insulted for their race by their peers, people who have been made victim to Orientalist rhetoric and belief. Not just this year, but every year. This is the context, the lens through which I see the Bowdoin Orient—a lens that I’m hoping you will try to see through, too.

Others will interpret things differently, I know—Ma’s op-ed is evidence enough of this. I respect his opinion about the renaming debate even though I disagree with it. I’ll also say that I agree with his statement that the Bowdoin community needs to listen to Asian voices and experiences. Be open to understanding narratives that don’t necessarily align with your own. To this point, I’d like to add: listen for the voices that aren’t speaking as loudly, and support them, too. Though the comments to my last op-ed skew towards dissent, in the days following its publication, I received a slew of texts and emails from people who told me they felt heard by what I was saying. I’m asking that the Bowdoin community give credence to these voices and try to empathize with our position.

Look—I’m not asking for the Orient to change its name because I see it as a way to fix the racism that is here on a systemic, cultural level; I’m asking the Orient to change its name because I see this as one small step towards recognizing and responding to those who, like myself, have felt marginalized by and at Bowdoin, those who feel the pain of the word “Orient,” especially when it’s the name of an institution on our campus. I believe Bowdoin can do better, and that begins by identifying areas where we can improve and create a more welcoming environment for students who feel targeted or ignored. If you had the ability to alleviate the discomfort of those already in a marginalized position, why wouldn’t you?

I don’t want half-assed emails sent a week after a deadly shooting or empty promises to be better allies followed by dismissive attitudes when someone takes a critical stance of existing institutions and practices. I don’t want silences. I want a greater consideration for dissenting voices, on a level equal with others. I want change, measurable change—change that represents a first step.

Rename the Orient.

Emily Ha is a member of the Class of 2021.

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