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Beyond carceral culture: confronting violence with care

a spectre is haunting Duke

As quarantine has pushed most Duke students online, the alienating nature of our computer screens has made it easier than ever to forget our words’ impact on other people. With the growing mainstream awareness of anti-Blackness in the US, a series of racist incidents were exposed on Duke Memes, part of a longer history of racism at Duke. In tandem with these incidents was the creation and proliferation of anonymous confessions pages (and particularly from a Foucauldian standpoint, the use of the word “confession” in employing carceral logic is really interesting, though not the focus of this column). This search for anonymity in order to avoid consequences, but also to hold others to account, ironically, can create the very environment that makes it impossible for accountability to occur. So what can real accountability look like?

When talking about accountability, a common phrase one will encounter is “cancel culture,” an epithet that has proliferated with recent trends of holding responsible people who have power or uphold oppressive ideologies. Unfortunately, our models of accountability are based within the same carceral logics that plague our criminal-(in)justice system. The presumption that there is “innocence” and “guilt” centers perpetrators rather than supporting those harmed, and focuses entirely on the individual. We assume that their actions reflect some immaterial and static concept of “character,” rather than realizing that we’re all humans who reflect our environments and have the capacity to do harm.

This is not to say that I am defending the harmful actions of those Duke students or the consequences they faced (although I am skeptical there were any meaningful consequences). While deplatforming is important, we’ve seen with various celebrities that it’s only really effective when a person deplatforms themselves. A transformative approach to dealing with racism and bigotry requires being in community with our peers and calling them in. By building genuine friendships and connections with those hurt by discriminatory statements and actions, we create an incentive to have honest conversations and for the person doing harm to want to change. When communities don’t cultivate inclusion, even if that requires excluding those who make it hard to include others, there’s no way to take those first steps that transformative justice will require.

With an absence of any real sense of inclusive and actively anti-racist community across all of Duke, we’ve seen the rise of confessions pages fill this vacuum. The first iteration of the Duke Confessions Facebook page became a gathering ground for racist dog whistles. Students of color, particularly Black students, were forced to confront fairly abhorrent and dehumanizing posts and had to make the stressful decision on whether to engage. Racist statements, no matter how veiled and made “respectable,” are also a form of violence on a psychological level, creating long-term, physical harm. We know that racism causes stress, playing a significant role in the health disparities between racial groups. Considering that the resurrection of the Duke Confessions page has gone down a similar route, although they have attempted to put “political” confessions in a separate thread as though all opinions are not implicitly informed by ideology, I cannot foresee the new admin team taking any of these concerns seriously.

Now, you might ask, “Celine, isn’t your dislike of the Duke confessions page politically motivated? Think of the censorship of conservatives!” Free speech is particularly not valuable to me when ineffective at motivating structural change, which is especially true for speech seeking to preserve inequalities. When your opinion is, even tacitly, supported by those in power, censorship does not affect you in the same way that it affects those punching up. But there are still issues with using this anonymous confession format even for “good.” Instagram pages, like DearDukeU, not only lack efficacy without organizers behind it, they become, as the account has admitted, “trauma porn” for white allies to feel sufficiently outraged and “innocent” of racism. I hope everyone did the group reading for this summer, as it’s once again not sufficient to believe yourself as “not racist.” As we all remain complicit in some way within this structurally white supremacist society, we have to be actively organizing against racism. Those behind the account still have not put in the  sustained labor that change requires, instead soliciting affirmation from BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the page doesn’t have potential to create change, but rather than promising to delete the account, they should plug into existing efforts to offer their support. In contrast, Abolish Duke IFC and Panhel (please get an acronym soon) has a concrete goal: the discontinuation of Greek life at Duke. With specific petitions and actions that people can take, it’s clear what the values and structural goals of the organization are.

Now, as many detractors of The Chronicle’s Opinion section ask, I’ve pointed out the problem, but what is to be done? Those who dislike cancel culture would say that there should exist no consequences for “mistakes,” seeing problematic actions as a “lapse of judgement” absent of the context and conditions that those actions were taken in.

Transformative justice is transformative because it attempts to get at the root of the problem in an attempt to heal those who were harmed. It’s especially key for social movements to know “how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work.” We need to center and support those harmed instead of relying on an ineffective punitive model that’s been so ingrained within us. When we recreate the courtroom in the conflicts we face in our community, we play on the oppressor’s terms. By focusing on structures instead of scapegoating individuals, we can avoid the pitfalls that neoliberal ideas of individualism have pushed upon us. We can change this culture by calling in our peers into communities of care that center minorities rather than push them to the margins.

Celine Wei is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "a spectre is haunting Duke," runs on alternate Fridays. 

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