The One In Which We Talk About Defaced Posters

photos for poster
Not the poster from Carleton.

While we have discussed the idea of a blog for a few months now, what finally led us to create the blog was a recent campus incident involving defaced posters. Made by a student for a class in the Fall, the laminated posters are Public Service Announcements for what not to do during Halloween. They hang in one of our academic buildings on campus. The two that we’ve seen both feature images of Carleton students (women of color) holding photos of inappropriate costumes with headlines such as “Culture is never a joke.” The latter was defaced with “Yes, it is. #Trump2016”; the second also had a Trump hashtag. Photos of the defaced posters were posted on Facebook by a student, eliciting a number of angry responses from other students that, to some degree, culminate in a consensus that the administration was informed about it and that they would take care of it.

In our earliest conversations about the posters, we both rejected the idea that “taking care of [the incident]” could be a singular act by a singular office, and as we figured out why we felt this way, we realized that, for both of us, the defaced posters bring up the complicated question of harm. Who is being hurt and how are they being hurt?

When we compare this incident to an earlier incident in 2015 involving a hate speech tweet, we found ourselves considering the way in which hate can be coded and produced in a number of ways. Neither the poster defacement nor the tweet targeted a particular individual (as opposed to an incident when a student found a note on his desk telling him, “Mexican, go home”), but target instead a wider set of actors, perhaps defined by common racialized experiences. One way in which the college has dealt with incidents of hate speech is through using restorative justice [RJ] practices. But because the hate and harm in the posters and the tweet is not localized, restorative justice practices seem inadequate, since it is easiest to bring someone into a restorative justice circle when the harm is concrete and individual and thus a story by the person harmed can be told. In other words, figuring how to repair harm in the wake of the poster incident is more complicated. After all, to the degree that RJ requires a small group or individual who is harmed, “all Blacks” or “all Latinx” or the entire Carleton community is just too big of a harmed collective for a circle. How are we to tell communal stories of harm in ways that justice can ensue?

What do we mean when we say that hate and harm are aimed at the community as a whole with the defacing of these posters? Anita sees this as a consequence of the fact that the graffiti violates our community standards that encourage some discourses and discourage others. She argues, however, that this is not about shutting down speech or about tone policing, but about standards of speech that encourage and invite conversation, rather than shut it down.

Intervention/necessary digression: At this point in our conversation, we noted that we wanted to be careful about how the two of us were talking about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” modes of discourse because we are aware of what happens when some discourse doesn’t seem to fit community standards that are historically coded as White and middle-class. For example: there were students who made posters in March with photos of two Black women students and asked “Dear White People” to know their names, that they are two different people, and that not all Black students are the same. These posters generated some negative responses from their fellow students, and the students who created the posters were told by administrators that the posters were not appropriate in tone or approach. So we want to recognize that these standards are certainly imbued with and produced through racialized and gendered histories of what counts as civil and productive discourse. Considering the ‘dear white people’ posters, we wonder whether particular claims about a failure to meet community standards are about an institution’s refusal to understand different cultural contexts and references being used by different members of the community. As a student told Anita, it wouldn’t take much effort to use the internet to figure out that the students were playing off a recent movie title (Dear White People) as well as a fairly well known Key & Peele skit about a Black substitute teacher mispronouncing White students’ names.

In other words, we believe that there is a difference between discourse that tries to intervene in dominant discourses and discourse that interrupts and halts dialogue.  In the case of the defacement of the posters, we both agree that the anonymity of the graffiti and the semantic leap it poses in relationship to the purpose of the posters stops dialogue.

For Adriana, the act of writing on or near the students’ faces terminates the dialogue rather violently. For her, writing on the posters also marks (without consent) the bodies of our students, an act that serves to erase their voices. The particular inscription of #Trump2016 emphasizes this erasure because, to the degree that there is dialogue one can witness here, it occurs in the relationship between brown bodies and faces confronted by and defaced by the hashtag, which has arguably come to be understood as a shorthand for the hate and xenophobia of the Trump campaign.

Anita sees a vital difference between speech as intervention versus interruption. Interventions, such as the “Dear White People” posters or Black Lives Matter activists asking Democratic presidential candidates pointed questions about racial justice, are meant to move the conversation forward. Even though the interventions might feel violent and irruptive, they are embodied and placed and ask for answers and response. #Trump2016, on the other hand, because of its anonymity, doesn’t make possible questions or reactions (except for fear and anger); to think of this within Butlerian terms, #Trump2016 injures through the way in which the hashtag has accrued meaning in its persistent political and discursive deployment this year.

The defacement also feels to us particularly violent because of the real people who were courageous enough to put themselves and their ideas out there in the public, only to be defaced by anonymous graffiti. They made themselves vulnerable. These factors lead us to see the defacement as more violent than if the posters just had words on them. We also want to note that the building where the posters were hung is a public space, so there is no telling who did the defacement.

What is clear to both of us is that it should not be just those students on the posters or “some students” who should feel unsafe or hurt; it should be all of us because those two students are members of our community. Part of the reason why we’re uncomfortable with the idea of the administration “taking care” of the situation (which for some seems to mean finding the perpetrator) is because it doesn’t matter WHO did it. The defacement of the posters raises the issue of how we respond –or don’t respond–as a community. Part of what we’re trying to figure out is how do we get people who are part of the larger Carleton community to see everyone as part of their community, and not just as subsets. How do more of us feel and or at least understand  the hurt and marginalization felt by, say, the two students on the posters and their friends when events like these happen? How do we became more empathetic as a community so that harm done to one is harm done to all?

Finally, we also want to figure out how we open up spaces for dialogue when such events happen, so that the ideas behind such events get discussed, and not just the individual incident itself. For example, with the hateful tweet incident, we suspect that there are many students (and non-students) on campus who might not have understood or empathized with what was happening in Baltimore. Rather than focus on punishing the individual who had sent out the tweet, what if we had instead had a teach-in on the terms “ghetto” and “riot”?

We will admit that, just like our students, we sometimes feel like it is someone else’s purview to capitalize on these teachable moments and move from individual incidents to community dialogue. It’s hard to figure out who is “in charge” and how conversations can be begun at large communal levels. We will end by inviting you to share your ideas and thoughts about how we move towards community dialogue and action.

Inspirations/suggested readings:

Butler, Judith. (1997). Excitable Speech. NY: Routledge.

Key, Keegan-Michael and Jordan Peele. (2012). “Substitute Teacher.” Key & Peele. Season 2, Episode 4, October 17. Comedy Central.

Pérez Huber, L., & Solorzano, D. G. (2015). Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(3), 297-320.

Simien, Justin. (2014). Dear White People. Lionsgate Films.