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.




7 thoughts on “The One In Which We Talk About Defaced Posters”

  1. I particularly appreciate how you use these two poster incidents to delineate the difference between speech as intervention and speech as interruption. This is certainly a topic with which many people on campuses — and elsewhere — have trouble thinking about and articulating!
    The post seems to see the Trump hashtag as an established symbol that is being wielded here, but I would argue that its use in this case and in many others is constitutive of its ever developing meaning. I wonder if that may add something to the analysis too, to understand the defacement not simply as a reflection but an act of creation. It is through these uses that #Trump2016 takes on a completely different meaning from any other candidate hashtag.


  2. Thank you for this comment, and for this blog. It was forwarded to me by a fellow Carl, Sarah Ogden Johnston ’86.

    I’m frustrated that 31 years post-Carleton our students of color share so many of my bad college experiences. Last year I returned to Carleton for my first ever reunion. One of my classmates asked why I had stayed away so long. I told him I left Carleton with such a bad feeling about the college that I felt no need to see it again. Over the years those sentiments dissipated, as I reconnected with folks and we could tell stories and laugh about the good times.

    My hope for your current students is that these incidents of racial assault won’t keep them from Carleton for three decades.

    Best — Tracie L. Washington, ’85


  3. Adriana & Anita –

    Thank you so much for your blog! I look forward to reading more posts in the future!!

    I have been thinking a lot about Carleton recently as I’ve been seeing murmurings of what’s been going on. Thank you for your poignant and practical explanation of the events, as I had been struggling to find details on what has actually been happening.

    Recently, my current campus (but not a place I truly consider home, as I do Carleton) of UW-Madison has seen a lot of similarly anonymous racist attacks against students of color (particularly African American). It culminated in the arrest of a black student (who had graffiti’d anti-racist sentiments on the Memorial Library) while he was in class. While this was deeply upsetting to hear about, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking, “of course this would happen.” Even though I have a “liberal bastion” within my education program with my peers and instructors, in which discussing race and confronting racism is our norm, I am all too aware of the liberal white culture of Madison and it’s “color blind” ideology. Which, as we are all aware, is what allows white supremacy to live on. (

    I can’t help but make connections between what I’m seeing on a large scale here in Madison with Carleton, and more generally with my continued frustration with Good White People™ (which includes myself at times!) who vote for the liberal ticket, use politically correct language, and shake their heads seriously at racial injustice, but who struggle to actually listen when people of color speak up about their experiences. It’s when myself and my fellow white people allow our own feelings of shame to overshadow our empathy and active listening skills that racism continues to dominate. We choose to not change the conversation because it makes us uncomfortable. I remember (often ashamedly!) how I myself wasn’t really able to examine race until my junior and senior years at Carleton. At the time, I believed it was because of the academic material I was reading and interacting with. It has been a painful realization that it was due to my own ignorance and privilege to not have to address these issues. I actively chose not to engage in these conversations or enter spaces where these conversations happened. I am trying very hard to make the opposite choices now – to engage in difficult conversations and to self reflect and examine myself, as well as de-center my own feelings so I can truly listen. My next step is talking to more people other than just my partner about these issues, and directly addressing microaggressions and racism when I see them in my daily life. I also have begun the difficult process of recognizing the harm I have caused on others in my life due to my ignorance and privilege.

    I really feel what you’re saying about RJ. I have been through RJ training, and I am in the beginning stages of adopting RJ into my pedagogy and lifestyle. However, as it relies so heavily on sharing stories, and on the perpetrator being confronted with the harm they have caused, as well as the victim being able to share their story and be validated, it is very, very difficult to use RJ to address ongoing, systemic racism and harm in these widespread situations. There is so much harm being done, constantly, at such an overwhelming level. However, I think by just using Circles as a normal practice in class paves the way for these conversations later on. Building community is so crucial in creating the spaces for approaching these conversations… white fragility is quite the hurdle, and it is easier for white people to confront their own privilege when they feel cared about, and more importantly, when they care about and value the voices who tell them they benefit from the privileges of white supremacy. Good White People™ hate hearing this. We really want to believe we are not racist or part of the problem. But we are! It helps to have a space where the very humanity of our fellow humans is recognized, privileged, and celebrated, where our own experiences are also valued, but de-centered. Where white people’s stories are not the only important ones, and where dialogue can happen.

    I have been actively trying to open the avenue for these conversations in class – introducing the Flint, MI crisis to my students, and asking them why the government stalled so long in taking action, making the point to stress the racial/socioeconomic demographics of the city and asking my students about this. Using poetry of Black Lives Matter activists to incite conversation and give them the language and medium to examine the system we live in. However, in the slog of the rest of the school system I worry it’s all getting lost. My students love talking about Trump, and they seem to inherently understand the danger of someone like that running for president. But they don’t have the language to say why. I am trying to give them the language with which to articulate what makes Trump’s brand of nativism so dangerous.

    I recently has the utmost privilege of hearing Gloria Ladson-Billings talk. She talked about how Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is more than just selecting materials that relate to your students. It is about helping them make change – which can look like starting these dialogues in their communities. It’s hard for me to want to encourage my students to do this work when I have seen over and over how such conversations have been received in Madison (poorly!). I want them to believe that they can enact meaningful change… but I also deeply worry for them. I want the world to be better for them.

    This was a bit rambling and went in about 6 different directions.

    I just had a bunch of thoughts I needed to share… Thank you again. I look forward to your next post!

    Class of 2014


    1. Gwen,
      There’s so much to respond to in your fabulous comment!
      I think for right now, I just want to heartily hear and snap to your comment about the fears and worries we have as educators about working with our peers and students to be “change agents.” (Not sure I love the term there, but I believe in the goal.) Challenging the status quo always involves making our bodies “sticky,” as Sara Ahmed would say, by which she means that we do not–we refuse–to let institutions and systems simply mold us into what they want and need…and that stickiness has repercussions.
      Thanks for doing the work that you do!

      Liked by 1 person

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