Content warning: themes of racism
Prof. Adriana Estill is the Director of American Studies and a professor of English and American Studies at Carleton. Prof. Anita Chikkatur is an associate professor of Educational Studies.
At the beginning of this term, we learned about a video in which a Carleton student yells, “F*** BLM.” While we are not sure who took the video or how it was made public, the fact is that it is now public, posted on Facebook and Instagram. About a week later, faculty were sent an email by the Dean of Students and Dean of the College, giving a few more details about what was said in the video.
Before we delve into our thoughts about what should be done in response to the video, we want to start by saying that we believe that Black Lives Matter. We believe that saying that Black Lives Matter should not be controversial. We want Carleton to be a community where Black Lives Matter, which means that it is a community where Black students, faculty and staff thrive and flourish. We believe that Carleton is not yet such a community.
Our primary concern is not about what happens to the individual student in the video. Our belief — that it is more important to address the content of the speech, rather than the speaker — has only become stronger as we’ve engaged in learning more about transformative justice and abolition in the past few years. We want to work against the impulse to punish the individual student by expelling them or isolating them from the community. We believe strongly that we can call out wrongs and injuries and that we can condemn hateful language without condemning the individual.
Part of what it means to move towards abolishing police and prisons is to move away from punitive forms of accountability. Instead, we need to imagine individually and collectively how we change community culture so that these incidents don’t occur. It is not about rehabilitating the individual necessarily (though perhaps that’s a part of what might happen), but more about rehabilitating the institution. There are many ways to do so, and at the least, we need to acknowledge that something happened that has harmed the community.
The open letter written by the Black Student-Athletes at Carleton (BSAC) notes that the kind of behavior that surfaced in the video “speaks to a systemic issue” because the repeated nature of these incidents make it seem like the Carleton community tolerates such behavior. They note that “public issues need public responses,” and this point gets at the heart of what needs to be done when incidents like this occur. In some ways, the fact that this video went public is an opportunity for us as a community. As our students have made clear, many such racist comments tend to get made in private settings – in classrooms, in locker rooms, in dorms. The video’s public nature serves as a moment when we can clarify what we stand for, rather than merely condemning what the student in the video says.
Such incidents also should make us all consider who needs to respond to an act of discursive violence and how. In response to a blog post we had written about the possibility of having a bias incident response team on campus, a commenter, Phil Yaure, raised an important point about institutions, arguing that we should be wary of “claims that student activists’ interests and aims are necessarily best furthered by institutional means…[and] whether administrative solutions are conducive to the kinds of goals students are fighting to achieve.” (Also, check out Robin D.G. Kelley’s excellent essay on the limitations of asking universities to be sites of social transformation.)
Those advocating for transformative justice make the same argument about the dangers of relying on the state – or the university – to address harm. As Mariame Kaba notes in an interview in Beyond Survival, transformative justice requires community and connection: Transformative justice is “a framework that allows for the transformation of relationships between us when we cause harm. I know for a fact that we can’t heal or hurt alone. We must heal or hurt in relationship with other people” (p. 296).
Rather than end with pat answers about how transformative justice can work on Carleton’s campus, we want to end with some questions: In this case and with other such incidents, if not institutional figureheads, then who needs to speak up? What or who is the community versus the institution? Who needs to clarify our values and commitments to Black Lives on behalf of the community? More of us? All of us? And how?