We’re still on hiatus from the blog (pandemic life!) but we wrote an op-ed for Carleton College’s student newspaper about responding as a community to hateful speech from a transformative justice perspective. Let us know your answers to the questions we pose at the end! (Also, check our tweet about the op-ed where we include some links that we refer to.)
Image description: Sticker in Minneapolis of Negro Matapacos, the Chilean “riot dog.” Image source
Continuing our occasional series on “changing our imaginations”–inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible”–we are excited to publish this post by our colleagues, Vilma Navarro-Daniels and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo about the symbolic and substantial parallels they see between protests in Chile in October 2018 and ongoing racial justice protests in the U.S. this summer. They call for us to recognize and build on the solidarities expressed by protestors as we reimagine a better world across national and linguistic borders. You can find Dr. Navarro-Daniels on Facebook, Twitter, or email her at email@example.com. You can find Dr. Lugo-Lugo on Facebook, IG (@crllugo), or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vilma Navarro-Daniels and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, Washington State University
Souls in pain know no borders.
Isabel Allende, My Invented Country
When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop
the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with
the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all.
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
On October 18, 2019 (18-O), Chile began a protest movement that shook Latin America’s Southern cone. The anti-government protests often focused on the police, who are seen as the violent extension of the government. The song composed by the collective “Las Tesis” (The Theses) and titled “Un violador en tu camino” (A Rapist on your Way) made its way around the world, with the line “and the rapist is you,” which the women in Chile performed in front of police precincts while pointing literally at the cops and figuratively and the courts, and the state.
Close to eight months later, the United States has also been experiencing a series of protests, in the summer of 2020, which has also focused on the role of the police as the violent extension of the government, in this case, perpetrating violence against people of color and more specifically, the Black population in the country. In fact, the protests began after a series of murders of Black folks in the hands of the police and White civilians, galvanized by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The movement, growing under the umbrella Black Lives Matter, began to ask, firmly and without pause for one important thing: the defunding of police departments around the nation.
As context-specific as the Chilean protests were, and as context-specific as the protests in U.S. cities also are, it has become apparent that fighting the government and its fascist responses in Chile has prescient points of similarity to the fight against the government and its facist responses in the United States. There is an unquestionable connection between the Chilean social movement, October 18 (18-O), and the U.S. demonstrations in the aftermath of the assassination of George Floyd. The frames and narratives of both movements, their symbols, how they have evolved, the way mainstream media has criminalized civil disobedience, and the response of their detractors all point to a moment in history shared by the citizens of both countries.
Amazingly, there are two Chilean symbols captured by photographers in the U.S. protests: the Mapuche flag and the Negro Matapacos (Black Cop-Killer), a black mongrel dog that became famous after having been seen in many street demonstrations for years. He was (and still is) the Chilean riot dog. Although the dog passed away, his spirit seems to be still present, encouraging the people of Chile (and obviously abroad) in their fight for dignity and justice. Stickers depicting Negro Matapacos were seen on some light poles in front of a police station in Minneapolis. And protesters were captured on camera waving the Mapuche flag in the U.S. street demonstrations.
Another important point of intersection is the stories of George Floyd and Gustavo Gatica. Floyd was a Black man killed by cops in Minneapolis by kneeling on his neck for more than 7 minutes. Gatica is a 21-year old Chilean college student who was left blind after police officers in Santiago mutilated both of his eyes by shooting the same type of rubber-bullets used by U.S. cops. Floyd’s “I can’t breathe,” which he kept saying as the cop’s knee put pressure on this neck, is eerily similar to Gatica’s “I can’t see,” after the cops shot at him with rubber bullets.
Race has also played a role in both sets of protests. As mentioned earlier, in the U.S., the protests have been framed through the Black Lives Matter lens. The Chilean protests have also acquired a specific racial component after the murder of the indigenous Mapuche leader, Camilo Catrillanca, who like George Floyd, was killed by the police. This particular murder has been viewed as a galvanizing element in 18-O.
It is clear that in both Chile and the U.S., mainstream ideologies support the interests of the ruling classes at the expense of the interests of the people. In all this, there is one more connection: Chile was one of the main laboratories developed to implement the neoliberal policies that sustain the U.S. economy.
Returning to the song turned street-performance, “A Rapist On Your Way,” the song makes explicit reference to police abuse of power, in this case, abuse against women. And we are reminded of a White police officer in Oklahoma who raped multiple Black women in a short period of time. He did that because he could. (A study found that police officers in the US were charged with forcible rape 405 times between 2005 and 2013.) In both Chile and the U.S., the police force, which is supposed to serve and protect civilians, becomes the “armed wing” of the government, the economic powers, and the ruling class. It becomes a weapon against the very people that they make an oath to serve and protect.
The similarities and parallels between the still-unfolding events in Chile and the U.S. register continuities and convergences in the history of both countries. The synchronicity of the protests and the similar messages by the protestors tell us that as Isabel Allende proclaims in the opening epigraph, “pain knows no borders,” and as Eduardo Galeano points in the second epigraph, whether in the northern or the southern hemisphere, “no one can stop the human voice.”
May these synchronicities allow room for solidarity and understanding.
P.S. (from Down with Brown): We’d love to have folks do guest blog posts for us around the theme of “changing our imaginations.” So BIPOC folks interested in doing so, hit us up at email@example.com!
Image description: Screenshot of a Zoom call with Adriana, Ainsley, Anita, & Halah
In response to the racially disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officers, Black students and organizations at Carleton College issued a call for action to the college to implement anti-racist programs, organizations, and spaces for Black students, faculty, and staff.
Over 2000 college alumni signed an open letter to the college both in support of the student demands and with their own demand for the college to develop a 10-year plan for racial equity and equality. This letter was officially made public through a Twitter campaign on Monday, August 10, 2020.
Within a few hours, Carleton College sent out a response to this open letter. Many of the alumni who signed the letter, especially the nine organizers, were disappointed by the response.
We wanted to provide a space for some of those alumni to talk through why this response was so disappointing and we wanted to do it as a conversation. And that is how we arrived at our first ever video-podcast-blog post, featuring Ainsley LeSure (Class of 2005) and Halah Mohammed (Class of 2014) who took the time to chat with us and provide their wisdom and insights. You can check out the conversation here.
We want to say a huge thank you to Ainsley and Halah for joining us. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot as we close-read the response and worked through how it missed the mark and what could have been done differently.
We hope you take the time to listen to the conversation, especially if you thought the Carleton response was fine. You’ll get insight into how our readings of institutional messaging can be shaped by past relationships, current conditions of trust, and, of course, deep, sustained attention to language.
Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”
We wanted to build on our last post which focused mainly on the radical possibilities of curricular change that responds to the current moment. This post comes out of the many conversations we’ve had with several friends (thank you Meredith, Thabiti, Wendy, Pao, Todd) and out of what we’ve been learning from the many BIPOC intellectuals and activists we follow on social media. We’re grateful to all of them for encouraging and allowing us to dream big about what’s possible if we are willing to change our imaginations.
In this post, we want to talk about how one part of changing our imaginations is shifting our listening practices and being open to fundamentally shifting our routines as institutions, even routine practices that we see as “good” and perhaps even contributing to lessening inequities on our campuses. Because reimagining and rebuilding requires being able to see that the normal that we had before the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings did not actually work for everyone. It just worked for enough of us that we were able to believe and trust that it worked for all. What we need to do now instead is to listen differently to the voices of those for whom the old normal did not work, rather than thinking that we just need more of the same normal. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, the pandemic “is a radicalizing factor because conditions that have been so dire, now combined with the revolts in the street, might lead one to believe that not only is society unraveling, but it might cause you to question what foundation it was built upon in the first place.”
What we mean by “more of the same normal” is, for example, when students complain about feeling marginalized because of their class status on Carleton’s campus, we tend to imagine that we can fix it simply by giving students more financial aid, instead of thinking about the fundamental claim they’re making about Carleton’s status as an elite school in relation to the economic inequities in U.S. society. The problem with this easy fix is that those in power can then sit back and imagine that their job is done, while continuing to maintain the structures that keep those students feeling marginalized. What would it mean instead if, as we listen to their needs and worries, we introduce them to classes that tackle racial capitalism and the histories of working class movements? What if we invite them to see how their experience at Carleton is not unique and is, in fact, echoed at elite colleges across the nation? (See, for example, the myriad Instagram accounts started by Black students in predominantly white colleges and high schools.) By listening differently to our students who feel marginalized, we might also be able to see them as they are and their experiences as they are, rather than as who we imagine them to be and who the college wants to mold them into.
Fixing it through financial aid is how we imagine our mission currently–to be an engine of opportunity for individual students. But what might the college look like instead if we imagined ourselves as an engine for societal transformation?
What if all of us and all of our institutions took seriously that no individual action or effort “can mitigate 400 years of racial plundering” in this country, as Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her recent article about reparations? What if Carleton and other institutions took seriously that their wealth and their ability to provide financial aid is inextricably linked to these 400 years of racial plundering?
Ultimately, we don’t have all the answers, and, in one blog post, could never gather all possible answers out there together. Our goal is to simply underline how vital it is to listen to the voices, experiences, communities of our students who are marginalized without assuming that we already know what to do to respond to them. How might their dreams for a different future help us reimagine our future, even if that future is one where places like Carleton don’t exist?
Perhaps it is our job at this moment to imagine ourselves out of existence.
P.S. We loved this article by poet Dionne Brand about this notion of the “normal” so do check it out if you haven’t come across it yet.
Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.
“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.”
Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”
While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis.
While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic?
In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”
Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)
Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]
Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.
Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.
Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea.
Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.
Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.
Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?
A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.
Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?
Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!
Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it
Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.
Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!
Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.
Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?
Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors
Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.
Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it.
For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis.
We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?
Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.
We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do.
We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.
Photo by Anita; on Chicago Avenue between 37th and 38th streets, South Minneapolis.
Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective. This post is by Anita.
They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible. Concretely, it’s putting investment in things like making sure everyone has food, making sure everyone has housing…being in process together so how do we want to keep each other safe? How do we want to address harm? Because harm will happen. How do we do that without sending racists with guns who have no accountability? Kandace Montgomery, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block.
Two weeks ago, an unarmed Black man was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. Murdered brutally, casually, for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.
Since then, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and cities and towns across the U.S. have erupted in protests against police brutality, calling for an end to racist policing and more importantly, an end to policing. Minneapolis is leading the country in reimagining community safety and community health and resilience beyond police. Thanks to the decades of organizing by Black activists and communities, especially Black youth, the Minneapolis School Board voted to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department and nine out of twelve City Council members have pledged to “dismantle the police department.”
During the first week of the uprisings in Minneapolis, I had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking about all the ways in which we need to divest and reinvest as we collectively imagine and build futures of justice for Black communities and for all of us. There’s the concrete divestment of money and resources from harmful institutions and the reinvestment of money and resources into community-led, justice-oriented solutions. What is also necessary is the divestment of my own thinking and ideas about safety and order. Or as Kandace Montgomery put it in an interview with Unicorn Riot after the community meeting on June 7, 2020, where the nine city council members announced their pledge to dismantle the police department, “We need to change our imaginations.”
During a phone call with a friend the day after the 3rd precinct and many nearby buildings had burned down, we talked about how my first reactions watching buildings in South Minneapolis burn down were shock and horror. I talked about how I was raised to believe in the politics of respectability, to obey laws, to follow the rules, and to believe that the police were there to help us. I needed to be honest in naming that my first reactions might have been shock and horror, rather than pretending like I didn’t have those initial reactions. I needed to acknowledge that I needed a moment to reframe what was happening. That I had to understand what we were seeing through a different lens than the ones given to me as a child of South Asian immigrants to this country. That I needed to shift my focus to the kindling from the flame, as historian Carol Anderson described it. That I perhaps needed to learn more about what it means to abolish the police if I am to truly divest from what I have been taught to believe.
To that end, a partial list of resources that I’ve found useful if perhaps you too need to divest from some of your previous ideas about what keeps us safe:
MPD150’s frequently asked questions page that answers questions such as “Won’t abolishing the police create chaos and crime? How will we stay safe?”
The first eight steps of abolition–what do we divest from, what do we invest in.
How to talk to children about the idea of abolition: a Woke Kindergarten reading of Wings by Christopher Myers
The end of policing Alex Vitale
Are prisons obsolete? Angela Y Davis
P.S.: Yeah, we’ve been on hiatus for a while…but we’re back at least for now. Given everything happening in our world today, we won’t promise that we’ll be blogging regularly or all the time, but we’ll try our best to put out posts on somewhat of a regular basis. As always, if you have a question about a race-related topic, particularly one pertaining to how we can imagine different, more just, more anti-racist ways of living, working, learning, and teaching on a college campus, you can write to us here.
P.P.S.: We’d love to have folks do guest blog posts for us around the theme of “changing our imaginations,” especially in the realm of education/higher educational institutions. So BIPOC folks interested in doing so, hit us up!
In response to our post answering a question about campus discourse, a reader posted a question that we thought might be a useful way to think through and write more in depth about some of the concepts we discussed in the post. We begin with a shorter version of the comments, you can read the full comment at the foot of the post.
“I am not sure what being a “structuralist” entails…It is people who produce structures. You can change the structure, but if the people do not change (i.e., if their attitudes and beliefs remain exactly the same), then another (bad) structure will inevitably replace the previous structure. Both individuals and structures have to change, which is exactly why discourse needs to improve. By talking to each other in beneficial ways, we come to understand each other. The hope is that such conversations will cause real change at the individual level. I am also not sure what you mean by saying that individuals are necessarily complicit in oppressive structures. There are always ways of opting out, though sometimes it requires serious sacrifices to opt out. A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing — e.g., Rosa Parks. Again, it seems like the way forward is both individual and structural change, because one bad structure will inevitably mutate into another bad structure, if people’s beliefs and attitudes remains fixed.”
Figuring out the relationship between structure and individual agency and how change happens encapsulates much of what the social sciences and humanities are all about (possibly also the sciences but we’ll speak for the two areas we’re most familiar with!).
First, let’s go back to our hypothetical example of tenure cases at Carleton. If we found that a disproportionate number of faculty of color were not getting tenure, we would not jump to the conclusion that individual faculty of color just happen to be less qualified, and therefore faculty of color just need to do better. We would argue that the system of tenure is set up in a way that disadvantages faculty of color and therefore we need to examine that system and change the system, as opposed to arguing that individual faculty of color should change to fit the system. What is the system here? There is a set of evaluative moments that are understood to be neutral and objective; one of these is the student evaluations gathered by our institutional research office. However, at the national level, there is quite bit of evidence that there are disparities in student evaluations between faculty of color and White faculty. In other words, educational institutions depend upon any number of systems that are supposedly neutral but that actually invoke and use metrics based on the experiences of the White academic elite. We agree that we want to get to a place where such disparities don’t exist by changing the racist attitudes and beliefs of students about the capabilities of non-White faculty. And two of us certainly try to tackle racist attitudes and beliefs in our classes. However, we also think that advocating to change the system of tenure and how much value student evaluations are given are also important and more immediate steps to take.
More broadly, we agree with Dr. King’s take on the need for both legislation and education/dialogue as ways to combat the insidious effects of racism:
“If we are going to solve the problems facing mankind, I would be the first to say that every white person must look down deep within and remove every prejudice that may be there, and come to see that the Negro, and the colored peoples, generally, must be treated right, not merely because the law says it, but because it is right and because it is natural. I agree with this 100 percent. And I’m sure that if the problem is to be solved, ultimately, men must be obedient not merely to that which can be enforced by the law, but they must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.
But after saying all of that, I must go on to the other side. This is where I must leave [those]…who believe that legislation has no place. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.”
King’s answer to the question of what leads to necessary, immediate change and fairer structures is legislation, i.e. changing hearts and minds takes a long time; changing the legal structure can provide immediate relief to the oppressed.Your mention of Rosa Parks brings up some interesting questions about how change happens. You write about how Parks being an example of “A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing….” It’s certainly true that Rosa Parks’ decision on a single day did lead to more collective action. However, Parks was already part of a larger, collective movement of struggle and resistance at the time she decided to take a stance. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and she has recently returned from attending the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. She absolutely did have to make a decision that day to take a courageous stance in light of all she knew about how she might be treated in the legal system as an African American woman–however, we do want to point out that her individual action had a greater impact because of her involvement in a larger structure of resistance.
Thinking about a larger structure of resistance brings us to the final point we wanted to discuss about your question–the question about whether it’s possible to not be complicit in histories and ongoing systems of oppression. We think that it’s pretty difficult, probably impossible, for people to live outside of oppressive systems. For example, we live, work, run, and play on land that was stolen from the Dakota people. The two of us were not responsible for the colonization of the Dakota but we benefit from it. It is not possible for us to make enough sacrifices to get ourselves out of being complicit in the historical and ongoing legacy of settler colonialism (maybe other than not living in the U.S. perhaps but still anywhere we could think to move to has been touched by histories of imperialism and colonization!). Similarly, living in the United States means that we are caught up in a capitalist system that is impossible to get out of.
Adriana was chatting (online) with a Jason Lewis supporter recently; he didn’t announce his political party, but he seemed to lean libertarian. As he denounced taxes and government, she pointed out that we all benefit from state and federal government oversight and funding of all aspects of our lives. Getting off the grid–making your own clothes, growing your own food, refusing to travel on state/federal roads, riding a bike–might get you closer to not being beholden to and party to these institutions. However, the histories of these lands, of these places, of these materials would still embed us within structural formations of race, capital, etc. In other words, hard as we try to extract ourselves from pre-existing structures, they are omnipresent and we are deeply rooted within them.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take individual actions to live lives that are closer to our ethical and moral principles, and when our individual principles conflict with structural expectations, we do think that sacrifices are necessary. Rosa Parks lost her job, for example! Yet that sacrifice can’t remove a person from histories and systems of oppression and exploitation. Indeed, the loss of the job confirms the continued working of the system. And we both continue to believe that honest, critical dialogue can change hearts and minds, helping to fuel people to continue fighting for structural change.
P.S. The whole structure/individual agency question is definitely one that sociologists obsess over, so if folks are looking for texts to read that address that question in a nuanced way, Anita highly recommends Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t no makin’ it!