Fifty years ago next week, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Bowdoin College. The Political Forum, a nonpartisan student organization led by Frederick J. Stoddard, Jr. ’64, Berle M. Schiller ‘65, and Christos J. Gianopoulos ‘64, invited him alongside civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. 

King spoke at a College that was home to predominantly white males. I write from a different one. One that is home to more than one gender, is statistically “diverse,” and has an established Africana Studies department. There is a lot that those three intrepid students who brought King to campus would be proud of. And yet.

When he spoke to a crowd of over 1,000 people at Brunswick’s First Parish Church, King reflected on the journey of African Americans. 

“Tracing the Negro’s struggle for freedom and full citizenship from the day he was brought to North America against his will, it is a fact we have come a long, long way,” he said. “But we still have a long, long way to go.” 

His words were true then, and they still are today. They are true for the world outside this bubble as well as for the one inside. For all the progress we acknowledge, there are equally powerful reminders of the distance to be travelled. To understand the contradictions that surround race today however, one must return to the original contradictions within the College’s early history.

The College is named after James Bowdoin II, a man who unsuccessfully drafted legislation that would “discourage the further importation of slaves into Massachusetts,” according to historians Frank and Fritzie P. Manuel. Yet, the Manuels also make clear that despite his public pronouncements, Bowdoin took advantage of the current laws in his home life. He owned a number of enslaved people himself and did business with known slavers. When he died in 1790, his son, James Bowdoin III, offered a substantial donation to the yet-to-be named College under the condition that the institution be named after his father, and by extension, gain a legacy of race inconsistencies.

Thirty years after its 1794 chartering, the College admitted John Brown Russwurm. We know Russwurm’s story quite well. Graduating in 1826, he was Bowdoin’s first and the nation’s third black college graduate, now commemorated by the John B. Russwurm house on campus. Less discussed is that Phebe Ann Jacobs, an enslaved woman owned by Maria Malleville Wheelock (the wife of William Allen, then president of the College) who stayed in Brunswick during Russwurm’s stay. Wheelock brought Jacobs with her to the College when the family moved in 1820. While there is a scholarly debate as to what Jacobs’ status—domestic servant or slave—was during her time in Brunswick, Craig Steven Wilder’s  recent “Ebony & Ivy,” asserts that she was a slave until Wheelock’s death in 1828. 

Whatever strides the College made forward, there were always constant reminders of the limitations of this progress. As an institution committed to the Common Good since its early days, Bowdoin hosted minstrel shows until at least the 1910s. These inconsistencies are not restricted to Bowdoin’s past either; they still strangle our community’s engagement with race today. 

Barry Mills became president of the College in 2001 and has transformed the diversity of the student body. According to the College’s common data set for the 2001-2002 academic year, less than 14 percent of the College’s student body at the time was non-white. In the 13 years since, that statistic has increased to 31.5 percent. While statistical diversity has more than doubled, race has gone from being considered “very important” in admissions—on par with high school records—to “considered” on the same level as one’s state residency or their interview. The change indicates a satisfaction with the level of diversity that Bowdoin currently enjoys, and implies that the goal has been reached. Yet a similar statistic makes clear just how distant the goal still is. In the 2001-2002 academic year only 11 percent of the College’s faculty were members of minority groups. Thirteen years later, that number has grown by less than four percentage points. 

I have been forced to personally grapple with these inconsistencies during my time here. I sit in class not knowing whether to correct everyone’s mispronunciation of an Indian woman’s name. I usually do, but today I’m tired. I’m tired of being one of a few non-white students in a classroom, if not the only one. I bring up race in discussions only to see the thought flicker in my peers eyes and on their tongues. They sigh without a sound. I’ve brought up race again. I’ve sidetracked the discussion. I’ve chosen to make an issue out of it. 

I grow a beard only to be called a terrorist. I pronounce the “h” in my name only to hear muffled laughs. Clothing becomes exotic once it clads my body. Cotton shirts are called dashikis and sandals ethnic. While I am now comfortable in my own skin, I can remember wishing for whiteness my first year when I thought certain types of girls were impossible to talk to due to my skin being more kiwi than peach. Months later, I remember thinking that attraction might only be possible when a girl had “a thing for brown guys.” 

Since then, I’ve found organizing. I’ve found solidarity, allies, and inspirations. There are many lights here—many who have taught me how to engage with the realities of race on this campus and beyond—and many who will lead the charge in changing  our campus realities. Still, too few people acknowledge that race is an issue on our campus, or that it has ever been one. But if people say they are color blind, do they even see me?

Zohran Kwame Mamdani is a member of the Class of 2014.