Deciphering campus graffiti

Use of controversial medium points to disenfranchisement, power imbalance

Richard Day
Richard Day

There has been much talk lately about diversity, tolerance and, yes, even racism, on and around the Queen’s campus. The debate has even spilled over onto the walls, in the form of what has been called “subversive” graffiti. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subversion as an attempt to overthrow or ruin a political regime, from the Latin subvertere, to turn from beneath. Although I cannot say for sure, it seems unlikely that the authors of slogans such as “Kill the cracker in yur head” were hoping to incite a rebellion against any government, student or otherwise. They may, however, have been taking aim at white privilege in one of the places where it is located. That is certainly a well-established regime and always political.

This having been said, I very much doubt that the graffiti in question displaced much mental sod. To do so would require that the citizenry, as it were, possess at least a basic understanding of how racism works, of what it does and how it does it. As far as I can see, this kind of knowledge is pretty much absent among those who have not already been subverted by the daily and nightly effects of living with prejudice and hatred.

For example, judging from the signage at a recent ASUS meeting, some Queen’s students think they can link anti-racism with McCarthyism. If Jacob Mantle were in any way a progressive figure, a “red” as they used to say, then I would be the first to jump to his defence. He is, however, clearly a “blue,” that is, a youthful cog in the national Harperite machine. The pro-Mantle forces would do better to accuse their opponents of Fanonism, for they would then be making at least a small amount of political and historical sense. McCarthy worked for the state and capitalism, for established powers of domination and exploitation, to destroy the lives of those who dared challenge them. Fanon worked against the established powers, against colonialism, racism and imperialism, to improve the lives of those who were marginalized and disenfranchised. To locate Tailgunner Joe, the holders of this sign might want to look in a mirror and point their signs appropriately.

Perhaps I am too cynical, however. It is possible that the scribbles in question have, in fact, been understood and have had the effect of partially destabilizing the hegemony of whiteness on this campus. To the extent that this has occurred, their authors should be applauded for a deed well done. Graffiti tends to express what is forbidden by the dominant order and is usually produced by those who feel excluded, often violently, from its public sphere. Its existence points to disenfranchisement and concentration of power.

The presence of potentially subversive, actually “offensive,” anti-racist graffiti on the Queen’s campus, then, is indicative of precisely what those who are offended by it hope to deny. That is, it proves the simple fact that no senior administrator has so far been able to acknowledge in public: that there is racism at Queen’s. I find it odd that this is such a difficult thing to do, since the first step in gaining the kind of consciousness that can truly live with diversity is to acknowledge that there is racism. It flows through you, and me. I am implicated in racism. I perpetuate it sometimes and I benefit from it all the time because of who and how I am. I work at a racist university, in a racist country, in a racist world. I can write that without disappearing in a puff of smoke. But then again, I am not the Principal. I don’t have to worry about the horrible proximity of press releases acknowledging racism, endowment cheques and butane lighters. When brought together in the hand of a major donor who cannot stand the idea that his alma mater could be intolerant, these things can indeed lead to spontaneous combustion, costing the University a lot of money.

I do have to worry about some other things, though, that I deal with every day, and happen to find much more bothersome than the occasional unofficial paint job. These would include: Coke machines; surveillance cameras; Homecoming; suits and ties; advertisements, logos, and mass franchise outlets of all sorts, but especially overpriced Sodexho “food;” parking lots; Frosh week; fluorescent lights; football games, kilts and bagpipes; and, most of all, chalked messages telling me I should give money to save children in Africa by “developing” them (this is not graffiti!?). None of these things, of course, is subversive, but they are indicative of a vast network of unequal relations of power hidden within the normal operation of what is most certainly not a neutral institution.

I’ll take a few anti-racist slogans over all of these things, every time.

Richard Day is an associate professor in the departments of sociology, cultural studies and global development studies

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