When I was in middle school learning about crimes against humanity in history class, I remember asking Mr. Harris, “What did people do?” The atrocities that were happening to victims around the world were usually well-known and even broadcasted. I wondered, “What happened to everyone’s actions, empathy, humanity?” To this day, I remember his answer—”I don’t know.” He wasn’t able to tell me why people did nothing while reading about the blatant injustice in the newspaper. I sat there dumbfounded and confused, certain that if I were alive at moments of such injustice, I would be a massive voice, a massive agent of change.
We all sit here today with similar circumstances regarding the genocide and ethnic cleansing currently happening in Gaza. A UN expert “warns of new instances of mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” I sit here with the same recognition and emotion as I did then. It is numbing to think that within a few years, a group of people could “go extinct.”
Even still, I somehow found myself reluctant to even just attend the Students for Justice in Palestine Teach-In event. I wanted to learn and support, but I did not want to be associated with the cause, especially as someone who is visibly Muslim. Hijabis are few and far between on this campus, and Islamophobia has been on the rise across the nation. Recently in Chicago, 6-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume was stabbed 26 times to death by his family’s landlord in an anti-Muslim attack. A Muslim man in NYC—my city—was denied housing because the landlord did not want to house a “terrorist.” A Muslim teen girl was the victim of a hate crime while riding the New York City subway to school. The man told her, “you’re a terrorist; you don’t belong here” before pulling on her hijab. My reluctance came from a legitimate concern of safety and fear, for both myself and my family. Some might say Maine is different, yet dangerous stereotypes spread far and wide.
Recently, I saw the interview between CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward and Egyptian protestor Rahma Zeina at a protest for Palestine at the Rafah Border crossing—the sole crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. She spoke on the dehumanization of Arabs in Western media. She said, “When I say the word Muhammad, how does that make you feel? You immediately flinch, because that’s what’s been happening. When Palestinian babies die, you don’t feel the same. You don’t feel the same as when I tell you one of your own has died. But these are our own. We stand with Palestinians, we stand with Arabs. [The West] owns all the mouthpieces. Where are our voices?”
Ignorant beliefs about a group of people are learned whether explicitly or implicitly through dinner table discussions and confirmation bias through media sources. These static, harmful images often portray themselves through exclusionary and/or harmful body language, speech and actions. Regardless, with the assumption that there would be a small but decent turnout, I went to Ladd planning to sit in the back.
Blending in became no problem as I felt an immediate safety in the crowd. 300-plus people ended up attending, causing the event to start late and move locations from Ladd to Kresge with people still overflowing onto the stage. Some joked that the move from Ladd to Kresge looked like a migration, or like we were going to take a class photo. How can we keep this momentum? As one of the organizers had said, there is real power in numbers. There is also real power in acknowledging and using one’s privilege. Being able to walk into a space without fear or doubt is not a universal experience. I have also found that different voices carry different weight in certain audiences or contexts. It should not only be the burden of the oppressed to change the narrative, though it often is. Our tax dollars are being used to fund Israel’s violence against Palestinian civilians. What could it look like for college students in Maine, and across the country, to not be passive?
One thing I have learned is that acknowledgment is powerful. The act of calling out is important. We have seen the impact of “calling out,” “making noise” and “holding accountability” in social justice movements. While I know that conversations can snowball into the creation of unjust assumptions and stereotyping groups of people, I encourage all of us to ask ourselves: What can we do with the luck life has given us? To study at Bowdoin? To have truly all the resources we could ever need at our fingertips?
A line in Bowdoin’s “Offer of the College” is, “To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket, and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake.” I find myself wondering how can we do more than simply intellectualize a genocide? When do discussions turn into actions like boycotting brands, attending protests and providing platforms to help change the narrative of the mis- and underrepresented? I know that we find familiarity and comfort in those who look like us, who have come from the same experiences as us. It strikes a different chord when someone in our community is hurting. But we’re all human. Where does that leave our responsibilities towards each other? While I don’t have any definitive answers, I believe that the Bowdoin community has the capability to figure out the answers together.
The author is a member of the Class of 2026 and chose to remain anonymous for safety concerns.