Ethnic Slurs, Laptop Stampedes, Oh My...

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005; 9:12 AM

Maine's Bowdoin College has produced its share of literary luminaries in its time, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the authors of In Harm's Way and M*A*S*H.

Its latest scribe, however, is infamous and anonymous. Here's a sample of his or her work describing the Greater Portland area: "Unpopular suburbs include Old Orchard Beach, unless you are a dirty French Canadian."

The author is the collective Bowdoin class of 2003, and thanks to the Internet, the class's impact appears to be long-lasting.

The Lewiston Sun-Journal's Doug Fletcher wrote a story about this for Tuesday's edition, noting that the "dirty French Canadian" item showed up in city guides furnished by "the college's alumni association aimed at providing information on area communities for students and others to use." Fletcher said that the site came to Bowdoin's attention after a student at Bates College in Lewiston noticed it.

The Sun-Journal reported, and I later confirmed, that Bowdoin pulled the offending material from its Web site. It then yanked a bunch of printouts that contained the unfortunate commentary after they were made available to all comers in one of the college's offices. The school also pulled the entire alumni-penned information section of its site to make sure no other unsavory references were buried in there. Do a Google search with the terms "Old Orchard Beach" and "dirty French Canadian" and you get a link to a blank page on Bowdoin's site.

But try clicking on the link that allows you to view that PDF document as an HTML page instead. Thanks to the miracle of archiving, the comment shows up loud and clear -- highlighted, no less. Gotta love Google.

I talked to college spokesman Scott Hood, who said he was unaware that the page still was visible. He said that he would ask the college's IT people to look into it.

"It was a lame attempt at humor and it's just not appropriate," Hood said. "We have computer use policies, and certainly a number of policies that this sort of thing violates. ... We don't tolerate it, we don't condone it [and] we find it offensive."

Hood told the Sun-Journal that "Bowdoin has a long history of educating people of French descent... and hosts French Canadian students annually." Heck, even the college's name has a French origin, as Jasmine Panthaky at the Canadian Embassy in Washington pointed out to me on Tuesday.

I guess if the sound of French spoken by people from Quebec offends you, this kind of city guide information could be useful. Regardless, it's an ethnic affront. And even though Hood said school officials edited the documents before publishing them, this goof continues to live on online.

Panthaky brought up an interesting point in this regard: There isn't all that much reason to take offense at this particular comment, offensive though it may be. The Internet, she pointed out, is peppered with the scribblings of half-educated bigots. That may be true, but finding that product at one of the schools often ranked in the top 10 list of liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report is somewhat distressing.

Laptop Losers

Maybe a better headline for this story would be a New York Post-style "LO$ERS!!!"


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