Unstickiness and Emotions in the Classroom

 

Classical and Quantum Optics, Fall 2014
Photo Credit

(We will occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Adriana.)

In 2003, I, a white-appearing Latina/Mexicana/Chicana, arrived at Carleton after leaving the University of New Mexico, a HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). If I were to say that sentence at the Latinx Studies conference in July, I would not need to follow it up with anything. There would be nods of understanding and sighs. But following it up is important, because while my story is like many others’, it’s also mine, and full of rich detail that could easily be forgotten but that shouldn’t be. (Sometimes I think my poor memory is a survival mechanism, but that’s another story.)

I was and continue to be very glad to have landed at Carleton. I have grown a great deal as a teacher and a scholar, and I am blessed with wonderful colleagues across all disciplines. But even though the institution was generally welcoming, it was and still continues to be an HWCU, historically white college/university (or PWI- predominantly white institution). In those early years, I couldn’t have put my finger on what that meant for me, exactly. There were moments of minor “oh hey there” moments that mostly had to do with being reminded that I was not in New Mexico anymore. And then there was the day–about four years in–that, having become accustomed to teaching Latinx studies to mostly white students, I entered a classroom and found it to be 40% students of color… and my whole body relaxed.

Fast forward to last year (my thirteenth year of teaching here). After many years spent being jealous of my American Studies colleagues at Macalester, who do an amazing job of bringing students of color into their program year after year, I entered the American Studies Methods and Theory classroom and, out of eight students, seven were of color. And my whole body relaxed. What does this relaxation mean?

When I first read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included several years ago, it rocked my world. Describing the common experiences of faculty of color at PWIs in England and Australia, Ahmed uses the concept of stickiness to describe the way it feels, for example, to walk into a meeting and be one of the few people of color: “When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus reconfirm the whiteness of the space.” Ahmed’s language and descriptions helped to name my experience, giving me language for what I had inhabited. Let me note that this stickiness is not simply a Carleton experience for me, but a Minnesota one. Whenever I make my way home to the Bay Area (California) or to somewhere like New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago, I feel myself rocked into health by the voices around me speaking so many different languages and the bodies around me that are all so very different. In contrast, in one Carleton meeting room, paintings of past presidents all look so much alike that, as we sit there discussing campus issues, I can’t help but feel unalike and sticky in the face of this “reproduction of likeness” that Ahmed argues tends to be assumed as an “institutional given” (38). Teaching in classroom after classroom of white faces, I try to use this stickiness of my racialized body to ground conversations about our raced identities and our raced practices. I don’t know how to say this gently: being brown in this way is exhausting.

Given this usual feeling of stickiness and exhaustion, walking into a room filled with students of color felt freeing. My racial identity was no longer something hypervisible or invisible, it simply was. When talking about discourses and histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality–key topics in American Studies–I didn’t have to explain, justify, or manage my racialized relationship to my field of study. Unpacking the relationship between whiteness and citizenship could be done without steeling myself for defensiveness.

And, after years of moving towards a pedagogy that attempts to guide students in learning that is affective, I finally felt comfortable enough to take some risks. I remember seeing 12 Years a Slave in the theater with a white friend. Afterwards, we tried to have a conversation where I asked him (spoiler alert) what he thought of the scene where we, the viewers, are not allowed to not see Solomon Northup, left hanging from a tree, in media res of the lynching. The camera cannot not look. The looking lasts. We wait an impossibly long time for the master to return and cut him down. How did it make you feel, I asked him. My friend got upset, in essence asking me how I could even talk about the film at an abstracted level. But, the thing was, I asked him how it made him feel. But this was all too much.

12 Years a Slave in the classroom is also all too much. But with my group of students of color, after we watched it, how we felt became a route into cognition instead of feelings getting cordoned off at the door. What I mean is that, historically, the U.S. classroom privileges rationality over emotion and, as we bring students into our courses, we implicitly and sometimes explicitly ask them to learn how to “gain distance” in order to learn. But this move –one I’d taken for granted for years– means that students who feel particularly affected by a topic like the physical and epistemic violence against people of color in the U.S. must do much more work to manage their emotions while other students skate easily into “rationality.” Or as Dian Million puts it, speaking of indigenous feminist scholarship, “academia repetitively produces gatekeepers to our entry into important social discourses because we feel our histories as well as think them” (her emphasis). Million makes the vital case that, to decolonize our knowledge production, we cannot divorce understanding from feeling.

To think about these emotional reactions as part of our learning meant that we recognized that there is, as Lauren Berlant puts it, a “pedagogy of emotions” that has been unequally engaged and reproduced depending on our social identities. She says, “by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives.” In working through 12 Years a Slave, thinking and feeling about Northup and his absolute powerlessness opened the door for us to consider the empirical and emotional weight of current judicial and law enforcement systems. It allowed us to make historical connections without collapsing the differences in structure, raced lives, and workings of power in these eras.  And while eight out of nine bodies in that classroom were not white, we were not all the same “not white.” This made for various moments of cross-racial recognition but also times of productive dissonance, where someone or another’s voice would emerge to remind us of multiple silences. We held each other accountable to all of our frames of knowing and feeling.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, we claimed our entry into knowledge and history, through feeling. But it also mattered that, in these moments of strong feeling, we could all feel deeply without the worries that have accompanied me in other moments of racially-charged emotional revelation: will I be seen as irrational? can you handle seeing all of me?

Note: Some of the ideas in this post are being developed into a longer essay for the forthcoming collection Difficult Subjects: Radical Teaching in the Neoliberal University, edited by Badia Ahad and OiYan Poon.

Sources/Inspirations:

My students, who are also my teachers.

Ahmed, Sara. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Berlant, Lauren. (2013)  https://societyandspace.com/material/interviews/interview-with-lauren-berlant/. March 22.

Million, Dian. (2009) “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2: 53-76.

Yancy, George and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, ed. (2014) Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms: Scholars of Color Reflect. New York: Routledge.

And always and forever, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, who opened doors for me into what it means to feel my way into knowing.

Recess – sumer is icumen in, yo!

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Photo credit

It’s summer! Grades are in, graduation is this Saturday, and well, we have other writing and reading on our plates! And some fun and relaxing, too! Consequently we’ll be on a biweekly (every two weeks) schedule for our posts; in the recesses between them, we plan to link to Things We’re Reading that we hope you’ll read too. We especially hope to provide a signal boost for the writings of women of color.

Without further ado, please meet Jenny Zhang, a poet whose essay “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” tackles what it’s like to be a woman of color in the literary world. She confronts moments like when Michael Derrick Hudson masqueraded as a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou in order to publish a poem.

She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks.

Zhang documents the ways in which the voices of poets of color have been underdocumented, underheard, and, as in the Hudson case, appropriated and monetized. “When they wonder why I am still here I can’t help but suspect it’s very different from when I wonder why I am still here. I can’t help but suspect they are enraged there even has to be anyone like me here at all.”

Our pride is our survival and the white wounded ego does not get to ooze over our excellence anymore. We will not be colonized by white injuries scabbing over our words. The reparations white people claw for the minute they feel excluded from this world is not our problem.

Complementing Zhang’s essay beautifully and painfully, Jennifer Tamayo’s piece “When You Handle Poison” relates the cost of living within the white supremacy of  U.S. poetry communities, detailing the taxing emotional and economic tolls.

The handling of this poison — the labour to spot and deconstruct instances of capitalist white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy at work — is particularly venomous because it performs both personally and systemically.

Tamayo traces this work–how her “unpaid and unseen” labor fits within larger raced and gendered cultural and economic systems–through her body. She emphasizes, “Essays of this kind are written with the body. If I track the progress of writing, my body becomes the compass.” In this way, she charts the everyday resistances she engages in through the ways they harm and eat away at her.

What I find difficult about these e-mails is the performance it asks of me — at times civil, or charming, or pleased, or excited, or careful — I am never myself. I am your social justice doll come to life. I distrust the invisibility of this kind of private conversation and what it demands of me.

Both of these  poets end with refusals to make nice, demanding that their experiences and their knowledges be recognized and heard…. so please do read these pieces and feel free to start a conversation in the comments.

Coddled or Resilient

We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students.

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[image credit]

A few notes: First, we apologize for not realizing that the comments on our last post were disabled until halfway through the week; they’re fixed now! Second, our brief hiatus last week is due to the way Adriana’s NYC conference got in the way of our writing. Finally, feel free to contact us at dosprofx@gmail.com.

Echoing national conversations (see sources below), there has been a lot of discussion on our campus lately about whether today’s students are too coddled and/or sensitive. At Carleton, one focal point for these discussions has been in relation to the benefits and limitations of creating an institutional structure to respond to bias incidents. This year, a committee composed of students, faculty, and staff drafted a proposal for the creation of a college committee to respond to reports of bias incidents. Here, we want to think through one of the assumptions that seems to undergird some of the discussion around this potential institutional change: the notion that asking for support, by way of filing a report or writing to the administration, is yet another indication of our students being coddled, proof that, unlike us, our students are not resilient, not independent, and generally too reliant on adult figures to take care of their problems. In other words, one concern we have heard in the face of this proposal and want to address in this post is, why can’t students just learn to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege? Why can’t they challenge each other when biased or offensive remarks are made? Why can’t they have thicker skin and learn not to be so offended by the inadvertent wrong word or the incorrect pronoun used out of ignorance rather than ill intent?

We absolutely believe that one of the critical skills that students can and should learn in college is how to talk about difficult issues of identity, power, and privilege across racial, gender, sexual, and class lines. We try to show our commitment to this belief through opening up space in all of our classrooms to talk about these issues and by providing students with listening and speaking strategies that allow them to do so more productively. We also do so through our involvement in the Critical Conversations program.  

At the same time, we see a few limitations of the insistence that students just need to learn how to take responsibility for confronting their classmates’ comments or behaviors without having recourse to institutional supports for when they cannot or don’t want to have those conversations. First, there’s the assumption that our students are needier, less resilient, less independent than we faculty were as students. To paraphrase Kiese Laymon’s longer, lovely post below, just ‘cause we didn’t ask for it doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t need it.

“The assumption that those of us who were educated in eras without the aid of robust psychological services, office hours and anti-oppressive institutional support are somewhat healthier because we were less entitled is tragic. I’m not convinced that our students need any more support than we needed. Many of our interior lives are proof that we needed a lot more help than we asked for. Our students ask for, and often expect and demand, support, care, compassion, justice partially because we – their teachers, administrators — didn’t get the support, care, justice and compassion we needed. Some of us failed to seek help and called that failure success. In a way that we should actually cherish, many of our students have been telling us, ‘We appreciate you and we love you, but we do not want to become you.’ (Kiese Laymon, public Facebook post, August 26, 2015)

Laymon and we are thinking in particular about the student experiences of faculty of color. For Anita, to the extent that she feels like a happy, healthy person in a racist and sexist world, it’s largely despite the formal educational spaces she was in, not because of them. For the most part, classrooms and our own mostly White faculty taught us how to navigate successfully these racist, sexist, homophobic spaces by giving us the skills, knowledge, and the cultural capital to assimilate into the predominantly White spaces of higher education. They did not teach us how to successfully challenge or change these spaces. We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students. We want to learn from our students how to create different spaces and this means staying open to their critiques, even if we don’t always decide to change our classrooms based on those critiques.

Second, the idea that students should just learn how to take care of these conversations themselves is a very neoliberal one about individual responsibility and freedom. Among the many assumptions and assertions of neoliberal ideology is the notion that “personal accountability replaces government responsibility for collective welfare” (Pauline Lipman). Responding to the reach of neoliberal ideology in contemporary societal organization, norms, and practices, Henry Giroux makes the case that neoliberalism now functions as a public pedagogy that teaches us that we have “little to hope for–and gain from–the government, nonprofit public spaces, democratic associations, public and higher education, and other nongovernmental social forces.” So, understood within neoliberal ideologies, it does look like our students are coddled and sensitive. But one way we understand students’ demands for the administration to take responsibility for what happens on campus is that they are pushing for the “state” [the college] to take more responsibility for their individual and collective well-being, rather than leaving it up to individual students. As we noted in our post about the defaced posters, we do want to develop ways to come together as a community to address bias incidents and to empower all individuals of a community to feel the need to raise these issues; however, we also want to challenge notions of individual responsibility that dovetail too neatly with neoliberal notions that pervade our institutions and ways of thinking and that absolve the State and institutions from their responsibility to care for their publics.

Third, our expectation that students must and can become more resilient and independent in being able to engage in these conversations seems to rest on the assumption that we faculty know what we are doing. But based on our own experiences trying to navigate such conversations with fellow faculty and staff, we have to disagree with the idea that we know how to have these difficult conversations, or know how to teach an increasingly diverse student body. And why would we? Most of us went to HWCUs and were taught by mostly White faculty alongside mostly White students. And really, the U.S. at large finds it challenging to talk about race, whiteness, structure, and power and how we live them materially as discussed in this recent Codeswitch podcast episode.

In our experiences, we faculty also avoid difficult conversations that might lead to a breakdown of communication or challenge collegial relationships. For example, when faculty members were concerned about our blog post about allyship, most of them did not write to us or have a conversation with us. Instead, they wrote to the faculty president–who we’d argue is an institutional resource for faculty–to express their concerns. And this makes sense to us because these conversations are hard. So why should students not have an institutional resource to turn to when they feel concerned about a fellow student’s speech? If we as adults shy away from difficult and potentially divisive conversations, it seems unfair to tell our students that they should learn how to do so when we don’t do so ourselves. These conversations are difficult because it’s difficult for all of us–faculty, staff, and students–to go beyond “the reflex of taking it ‘personally’ when one’s position of structural privilege (and the habits of response that go with it) are called out by others” (thanks, AJ Scheiber).

While the line between personal responsibility and institutional accountability is undeniably a blurry one, we’d like to propose that our students’ requests for help should be understood not as a sign of being coddled or lacking resilience, but instead as a sign that they, and we faculty, live in a society where conversations about bias, privilege, and power are hard ones to have. Rather than dismissing their concerns, we should entertain the possibility that they might be asking for the right kinds of support and resources from institutions by challenging neoliberal notions of individual responsibility, and that they’re right in saying that our institutions have a role to play in providing these supports and resources.

Inspirations/sources

Chatterjee, Piya & Maira, Sunaina, Editors. (2014) The Imperial University : Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Giroux, Henry. (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm.

Lafargue, Ferentz. (2016) “‘Coddled’ Students and their ‘safe spaces’ aren’t the problem.” Washington Post March 28: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/03/28/coddled-students-and-their-safe-spaces-arent-the-problem-college-official-says-bigots-are/

Lipman, Pauline. (2011) The new political economy of urban education. NY: Routledge.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. (2015) “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Atlantic Monthly September: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

Roth, Michael. (2015) “Sick of hearing about pampered students with coddled minds? This university president is.” Washington Post Nov 20: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/11/20/sick-of-hearing-about-pampered-students-with-coddled-minds-this-university-president-is/

It’s not about cookies: The politics of allyship

…if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in.

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Carleton faculty meeting 1958-59.

(Note: we’ve altered identifying details of some of our experiences to avoid pointing fingers at particular people, because we are about critiquing systems and institutions, and not about blaming individuals.)

Dear blog readers: you should know (or maybe you’ve already guessed) that we’re the kind of people who do a lot of “diversity work” at our institution. (Another way to put it is that the institution asks us to do a lot of that work. Or that, because of our bodies and our identities, some of the work finds us in ways that it doesn’t find others.) This is a story all about how “diversity work” makes us think and talk a lot about what it means to find, establish relationships with, and work alongside allies.

Case in point. Two emails sent out this year to all faculty and staff. One about a “Faculty Diversity Lunch” and one about an informal social gathering for LGBTQA+ identified staff and faculty. For the latter one, A was spelled out to indicate “asexual.” Both of these emails got responses (from different people!) that went something like, “Hey. I noticed that you didn’t include allies. Um, you didn’t include ME. Did you mean to do that?”

And yes, people, yes. Yes, there were conversations among both groups of organizers about whether allies should be explicitly invited. And yes, both groups decided that allies were not to be included in these spaces.

The “hey, what about ME?” response got us talking YET AGAIN about allies. We believe that if you consider yourself an ally, you don’t need to ask that question about whether allies are included, especially if the invitation does not explicitly include allies. We believe that allyship is a process, not an identity. We believe that sometimes allies just need to listen and not comment.

But apparently it is really hard for allies to not want credit–to not want to be seen and recognized as such. The curious, ironic result of allies’ self-declarations is that they end up centering the dominant identities they embody (#notallwhitepeople, #notallmen) rather than  interrupting or dismantling systemic oppression. It gets to the point where individual exclamations come together to sound like a collective gasp and refusal: “#notallinstitutions!” i.e., surely here at Carleton we’re better, kinder, and less racist.

We recall a conversation where, at one point, we felt the need to point to the imbalances of service work for faculty of color, especially in helping students (of all races and backgrounds) navigate complicated interrelational conversations around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Please note: when we do this kind of testimonial work on campus, we’re not asking for pats on the back or sympathetic clucks. Rather, we’re making a case for why the institutional structures that we have now interpellate us–faculty and staff of color–differently. And the emotional labor that we expend is not inconsequential to the ways in which we can (or can’t) balance the rest of our workloads.

At this point, one of our white colleagues, perhaps in a moment of intended alliance, said, “Hey! I do this work too!”

Here’s what we heard when our white colleague said that: your critique of the system is incomplete because I’m not included; you’re not giving me credit for helping you with this work; you are critiquing your allies and our good intentions.

And here’s what we would like our colleagues to understand–that our testimony wasn’t a claim for recognition. Rather, it was a critique of the system that demands our emotional labor unequally, that produces the unevenness through racialized, gendered and sexualized processes that are already on the ground, and then refuses to see that system or that unevenness.

We were pointing out how that burden of supporting students to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege falls unequally on faculty of color. Indeed, even if we’re all doing equal hours of work of supporting students dealing with racism, for example, it still feels different to do that work as a faculty person of color. For Anita, these moments always bring back memories of what it was like to be a student of color at a HWCU, memories that tinge her current interactions. Adriana struggles to figure out how to communicate useful strategies while recognizing that those strategies sometimes participate in girding the system. (For example, she certainly has catered to white fragility on more than one occasion, in order to help colleagues better hear and understand what’s at stake in conversations about race.) White faculty have a different experience. Even if you’re the most empathetic white faculty member, mentoring students of color and white students through interrelational issues won’t raise the same memories or lead to the same embodied responses. In addition, you often have more authority, something reflected in the better teaching evaluations that white faculty receive, particularly when teaching about diversity (see Schueths et al. and Jones-Walker).

In moments like this, the presumed ally wants to be different and wants to be seen as passing some sort of test. But look, we don’t need you to pass a test. We need you to listen, to acknowledge that you heard us, and to recognize that the points we brought up are worth considering. Instead, the White ally in our example said, “My department has great practices; you don’t know my department.”

It’s true. We are only two faculty and we are not everywhere. However, we hear about the experiences of many of our friends who are women of color on our campus and on campuses across the country, in many different disciplines and types of academic institutions. There’s also national data that shows that faculty of color (and women faculty with regards to gender issues) are spending more time and energy on this kind of emotional labor. So when someone  says, “You don’t know me or my department,” what we hear is, “Don’t judge me or hold me accountable. *I* don’t fit the national data.”

As we discussed this, we imagined what an ally might have done in this situation. First and foremost, your support shouldn’t require a thank you from us. As a self-anointed ally, standing up to support underrepresented voices should just be what you do. You don’t get cookies for being an ally. Really, if you’re asking for cookies, you’re not an ally.

Second, an ally might recognize the risk entailed in sharing racialized experiences in predominantly White spaces, and acknowledge our truth. It may not be your truth, you may not quite understand or see it yet, but trust and respect us rather than disbelieving and undervaluing our experiences. If we’re saying this is how we feel the burden as brown women faculty, you don’t say, as a White faculty member, you’re not alone, I totally understand, or I’m doing the same work–because you’re not doing the same work.

Third, if you find out that there’s a gathering of folks with a marginalized identity and you’re not included, feel free to write back (as some of our colleagues did) to say that you support the efforts, that you are willing to support any actions the group decides the campus should take to better support the group, and that you understand why that gathering isn’t for you.

In conclusion, if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in (thanks, bell hooks!).

P.S. We don’t want to imply that we have always been or will always be perfect allies. We have certainly hurt people we love and respect because of our refusal to see our complicity in oppressive practices or systems. We’re also always learning and we owe a million thanks to our friends and co-conspirators who have spent hours and hours educating us about our privileges and lack of understanding on various issues. We appreciate your love, labor, patience, and forgiveness.

Inspirations/Sources:

Sara Ahmed. (2012) On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2015) offers us the concept of the HWCU (Historically white college and/or university)

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs and Yolanda Flores Nieman, et al (2012) Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, CO: UP Colorado. *particularly recommended for our White faculty allies*

bell hooks. (2008) “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.” Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLMVqnyTo_0. Online.

Cheryl Jones-Walker. (2016) Teaching Difference in Multiple Ways: Through Content and Presence in Transforming the Academy. http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Transforming-the-Academy,5886.aspx [Also, this book has a chapter in there by Anita…just FYI!]

Joya Misra et al. (2011) “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work” http://www.aaup.org/article/ivory-ceiling-service-work#.VzZDQT9fmXe. Online.

April Schueths et al. (2013) “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” Sociology Department, Faculty Publications. Paper 236. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/sociologyfacpub/236. Online.

Kathleen Wong. (2007) Emotional labor of diversity work: Women of color faculty in predominantly White institutions. http://gradworks.umi.com/32/88/3288033.html Online.

The One In Which We Talk About Defaced Posters

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Not the poster from Carleton.

https://www.ohio.edu/orgs/stars/Poster_Campaign.html

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.