When a group of students attended a party at an off-campus house several weeks ago, they heard comments that made them feel unwelcome because of their race. Hurt and frustrated by the incident, Tida Lam '07, one of the offended students, wrote a note on Facebook about what had happened at the party.
The note, titled "Did you know that you have to be white to feel welcome?" elicited more than 90 posted comments from Facebook users, the vast majority of whom were Bowdoin students. Some comments attacked the person who allegedly made the offensive comments at the party, while other comments offered thoughts on the larger topic of race at Bowdoin.
Not only has Lam's note sparked a conversation on Facebook and on campus about race issues at Bowdoin, but it has also raised questions about the merits of using the Internet, particularly Facebook notes, to discuss specific incidents and broader issues.
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Multicultural Student Programs Wil Smith said communicating through a Facebook note is almost the same as a student of the past standing on the Quad with a bull horn or handing out flyers
However, he said, "Facebook reaches larger communities than the flyers or the bull horn could have ever imagined."
Although such a tool expands the discussion, it "does not bring people face to face," Smith said. He also added that in some cases, it makes students less accountable.
Lam added that she recognizes Facebook's capacity to reach wide audiences.
"The reality is, [Facebook] is used by almost everyone, it's used every day, it's the best form of communication," she said.
Lam clarified that she would have preferred to submit something to the Orient, but that it was not being published the week of the incident.
According to Lam, Facebook notes are valuable because they provide a forum where anyone can respond and "formulate their thoughts through written words." Furthermore, she said that many of the people who posted comments would not have been comfortable enough to approach Lam or the other students involved in the incident, with their opinions on the matter.
"We really wanted to use it as a catalyst to broaden the discussion about race and language," Lam said.
Doris Ramirez '07, who overheard the comments at the party, said that Facebook is valuable because it allows students "to say what [they] feel and what [they] think without a face-to-face confrontation."
In a statement to the Orient, the student who allegedly made the offensive comments at the party said, "I am sincerely sorry for the way in which Doris and Thoung felt as a result of my words a few weeks ago; it was in no way my intention to offend. Subsequently those events prompted an important discussion."
The student's name was not included in the Facebook note. The Orient has chosen not to name the student, per his request.
"Words are powerful and that which we do not know often does as much to shape the reality in which we live as that which we assume we do know," he wrote. "In this case, there was much I did not know about Doris and Thuong and much that they also did not know about me.
"Going forward, there is much to be learned on how to deal with situations where many perspectives are involved, particularly when there is the opportunity for miscommunication," he wrote.
The lack of a "face-to-face confrontation" is what upset many critics of Lam's use of the Facebook note.
Nick Tomaino '08, who commented on Lam's Facebook note, described Facebook as "very impersonal" and said that using it in this way can "perpetuate the problem."
"Rather than having a discussion about it, people make assumptions and nothing is resolved," Tomaino said. "Ideally, talking to somebody on a personal level would be the most productive."
While Tomaino said that this sort of conversation could be "difficult, and at times it can be awkward and intimidating," he also said that the closeness of the Bowdoin community makes this approach more realistic than it might be in other environments.
Tyler Boyer '07 saw different problems with the Facebook note and comments.
According to Boyer, the aggressive tone of some of the comments may have discouraged a healthy dialogue from taking place.
"The conversation and Facebook note may have ostracized people from engaging in the discussion in the present or in the future," Boyer said.
Boyer added that the majority of comments were made by students of color, which he believes is "unfortunate."
"If the goal is to get people to talk about it...my guess is that in the future even more white students will stay out of it, which is a major problem going forward," he said.
Other students are concerned about the level of dialogue regarding race at Bowdoin.
Since the incident, the two parties have participated in a mediated discussion and have agreed to move forward in a productive manner.
President of the African-American Society Dudney Sylla '08 agreed that there is a need for more dialogue about race at Bowdoin. According to Sylla, some students simply do not want to talk about it.
"They are here to get their degree, not to deal with social issues," Sylla said.
Sylla said that most conversations about race at Bowdoin take place in private and academic settings. While he does not devalue these, he would like to see more public venues for such discussions.
Shawn Stewart '08, who also commented on the Facebook note, is concerned that discussions about race usually "come up at the wrong time."
"It's usually only discussed when things like [the party incident] happen," he said.
Stewart said that when people hear racially offensive comments, they might "brush it off after a while."
"We push these issues to the side," he said.
However, Stewart maintained that there is a way to create a more comfortable environment for students.
"There should be an ongoing discussion," he said.
Roy Partridge, visiting assistant professor of sociology and anthropology and instructor of the course Overcoming Racism, said he tries to create a safe environment for students to have these discussions in his classroom.
Partridge agreed that communication is important; however, he stressed the importance of acquiring a "working knowledge" of another person's experience and situation before entering into a dialogue with that person. Without some understanding of the other person's situation, he believes conversations can be difficult.
"For many students, there hasn't been a lot of contact prior to coming to Bowdoin with other racial groups," Partridge said.
Partridge explained that sometimes people just do not know what to say, and they say something that is offensive to somebody else.
"A lot of the problems that arise arise out of ignorance, not out of malice of forethought," Partridge said. "If we can see those times that people correct us as a gift rather than an attack of some sort, I think that would push us much more quickly to resolving these issues."
Smith, the assistant dean of student affairs, also commented on the potential for education in situations where one party is offended.
"If everyone agreed and experienced everything the same way, there would be very little opportunity for growth," Smith said.
This incident has prompted Smith to spearhead a program in the coming weeks that will focus on the power of language and highlight how certain words carry a range of meanings for people coming from different backgrounds.
He envisions the program beginning with a theatrical reenactment of actual scenarios that have happened at Bowdoin in which one party inadvertently said or did something offensive to another party. The skits will be followed by a panel discussion with some of the people involved in the actual events and an open discussion among those who attend.
"This is a good time to raise the consciousness about the power of words and how different people experience them," Smith said.