I originally posted sentiments expressed in this op-ed several weeks ago as an anonymous comment to Emily Ha’s op-ed “Rename the Orient.” At the time, the semester was at a particularly strenuous point for me, exacerbated by the emotions around the March 16 Atlanta shootings and the ongoing anti-Asian violence around the country. I did not wish to compound my own stress by signing my name to something that might incur backlash, especially after witnessing the vitriol directed at Emily over her piece. My sympathy and support for her thus remained behind the scenes, as did my admiration for her courage in speaking up repeatedly and defending her experiences and perspective. Now, as the academic year winds down and I have more mental reserve and moral strength to return to this issue, I find myself asking: if a student has the grit to speak her mind and stand tall amid all the same pressures that I faced as an Asian American woman during these times of racial hatred and violence, then why is it that I, a longtime, tenured faculty member at the College, would feel so much fear and anxiety about entering the fray? Is it that, even after having taught at Bowdoin for 16 years, I continue to perceive myself as not central to the institution and hence behave and feel accordingly? It is in the spirit of micro-affirmation towards Emily, as well as in recognition of my own institutional value, that I put forward these thoughts.
In the weeks after Emily’s April 2 op-ed, I followed the naming debate closely on both the Orient website and its Facebook page. I felt both shocked and disgusted by some of the knee-jerk paternalism, and in some instances outright disrespect, directed at her. “Time to grow up,” wrote one especially prolific Facebook poster, who then went on to describe Emily’s story as “contrived, attention seeking, an action aimed more toward some bizarre combination of virtue signalling and self pity.” It became clear to me that the debate had gone beyond interpretation of language and into a battle over institutional power.
Language is dynamic and communal, and for that very reason, the word “orient” will read differently to different people. Some, like Emily, will cringe but question the validity of their own reactions for years before speaking up; others, like some of the commenters on her op-ed, will also cringe but shrug it off and move on; still others, like her strongest critics, won’t ever have considered her perspective but will insist solely on their own interpretations. None of this is unusual or contentious about communal language use. The problem here is one of power.
By their tone and posture, some of Emily’s critics clearly see themselves as possessing greater power and authority over language use and institutional identity than she does. They claim more knowledge of English and Latin, they claim more memory of institutional history and implicitly, they claim to be “more Bowdoin” than she is—hence entitled to a bigger share of the conversation and decision-making over institutional practices. The fear runs deeper than just a name: it’s about who has the power to decide on that name. Bowdoin has historically been, and remains, a predominantly white institution (PWI), with power over institutional practices concentrated in the white majority and decisions over institutional norms defined by that white majority. In this relatively minor debate over a newspaper’s name, it’s not so much that one side is right and the other side wrong about etymology and meaning—it’s that one side has tremendous historical privilege while the other side is a marginal newcomer. As Bowdoin diversifies, will it learn to allow minority and marginalized voices a place at the table, and when invited to join, will those voices be granted equal respect and dignity rather than being shut down, shouted down or dismissed out of hand with ridicule and condescension? Is Bowdoin ready for power sharing?
As Bowdoin continues its efforts toward greater inclusion and equity, we need to start laying down pathways for better, braver institutional practices. Not letting a lone woman student of color bear the backlash of entrenched white privilege is perhaps one small step in that direction.
Belinda Kong is the John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Asian Studies and English.