We must recognize lingering effects of upbringing
To the students of the College who doubt the validity and legitimacy of the emotional responses on campus to the recent events of racial bias: Maybe you’ve grown up hearing “yes.”
It’s Pavlovian, really, when you’ve been told “yes” all your life. Yes to elite Manhattan preschool; yes to firing the babysitter you hate; yes to a weekend in the Hamptons; yes to that spring break trip in Cabo; yes, yes, yes. Perhaps you’ve grown accustomed to hearing that word in response to your requests. You’ve grown accustomed—through no fault of your own—to expecting your demands to be met with a resounding, authority-uttered, definitive “yes.”
But I’d like you to consider those who aren’t so accustomed to expecting or hearing this sort of “yes,” because these people exist, and they exist on this campus, because understanding others is important and because that clearly isn’t happening at Bowdoin right now.
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us in “Between the World and Me” that black children and white children are raised differently. (And please bear with me while I boil down the complexity and nuance of race relations on this campus to black vs. white, eliminating the metaphorical gray, for the sake of argument.)
White children, Coates tells us, command “entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belong[s] to them.” He points out that “terror” is communicated to “our black children,” while “mastery is communicated to theirs.” While the white body is told to expand, arms spreading wide in the white spaces into which it blends, the black body is told to cower: make itself smaller; occupy less space.
And of course on a campus where everyone is equal but some have grown accustomed to commanding entire sidewalks with their tricycles, and others to deference, there’s going to be some conflict. We are all told to occupy one 1800th of Bowdoin, but some of us are used to taking up much more space than is allotted to us, and some of us, much less.
So perhaps, you doubters, when you were told you couldn’t wear a sombrero to a party, it was the very first time you’ve heard “no.” And perhaps that was hard. Perhaps you felt threatened, and perhaps you’re scared of the sidewalk not remaining wide and white for your future child. But I’d like to challenge you because this is no longer about the fear that you experience when you’re told you can’t have fun in exactly the way you had decided you wanted to. This isn’t about parties, this isn’t about tequila and this isn’t about you.
This is about respecting the students on this campus who are just as entitled to “yes” as we white students feel we are: yes to that research grant, yes to the outing club, yes to not being called the n-word, yes to being here at Bowdoin.
This isn’t about being butthurt. This is about empathy and respect and allowing each person on this campus to spread their arms wide and fill the the one 1800th of the campus that is allotted to each of us upon admission.
We as white people can’t understand exactly what it means to be told “no” so often, and we must recognize the limitation in our ability to empathize with the students of color who are so profoundly hurt right now. But we need to try.
And we—as Bowdoin students—need to start telling each other resoundingly, loudly and authoritatively: “yes.”
Phoebe Kranefuss is a member of the class of 2016.