1 Balkis

Demon Unessay

Content Warning: This post includes details about the murder of a young Indigenous man. It is directed at Canadian settlers and other non-Indigenous people who may be unaware or dismissive of the degree of racism and violence present in this country. We recognize that our Indigenous friends are all too aware of these stories, and have no need to repeatedly revisit that trauma. In short, if you are already grieving and pained by this week’s events in Saskatchewan, we are sorry, and you probably don’t need to read this post. 

We are writing this point jointly because we are jointly horrified by the outcome of the trial of Gerald Stanley, a white farmer who shot a 22-year-old Cree man named Colten Boushie in the summer of 2016. Many people, both in Canada and outside of it, remain under the illusion that Canada is “less racist” than our neighbours to the South, or that we are a “nicer” people than many others in the world. This story is one that has revealed, through the actions of the RCMP, the court, the jury, journalists, and the general commenting public, how deeply wrong that narrative is.

From the get-go, this story has been one in which the narrative of what happened hinged on whether Gerald Stanley legitimately had reason to be so fearful, so panicked, and in such distress as a result of the car carrying five Indigenous youths arriving on his property, that he retrieved his gun, and that in the chaos and confusion, one of those young people was shot in the back of the head, dying as a result. He was acquitted based on a defense that the shooting was accidental – a magic gun, some are calling it, based on his description – but as the barrage of post-verdict commentary has revealed, the core of jury sympathy rested on the idea that he was defending his property. This justification was established the day after the murder, when RCMP follow-up to the events at Stanley’s farm described their ongoing work as relating to a ‘theft investigation’, immediately giving credence to the farmer’s version of the story that characterized the young people’s presence on his property as based in their desire to rob him. The witnesses in the car explained they had been seeking help for a flat tire — a story fairly obviously supported by the state of the vehicle.

The perspectives on the story are very much racially rooted. White settler Canadians, even after the verdict, are commenting on social media and on news sites saying that the victim and his friends should not have been drinking, and should not have driven on to the property. The events are ‘tragic’, they say, framing Stanley as a victim of circumstance, a landowner naturally terrified of these rowdy young people being present on his property, whose fear and apparently poor gun safety skills led to a death that could only have been avoided by the victim himself (and, often, his entire culture/race, which is blamed for failing to teach its children not to drink and steal, despite the fact that there was never any evidence that the youth were even trying to steal anything).

We are not writing this with any pretense at neutrality: we believe that Gerald Stanley is guilty of murder. We believe his fear and anxiety about the presence of these young people on his property would be better described as racist anger and hostility, built around a lifetime of stories about how Indigenous people threaten white property. We also believe that the not guilty verdict was produced by the actions of a racist police force, who immediately accepted the Stanley family’s story about ‘theft’, who informed the victim’s family of their loved one’s death callously while searching their home for evidence of that theft, and who later cleared themselves of wrongdoing in those actions – saying, of course, that the officers were perfectly reasonable to prioritize a theft investigation based on the word of a white farmer who had just shot one of the accused thieves in the head. The murder investigation was not only secondary, but apparently a fairly low priority – the same police force failed to treat the vehicle in which the victim died as a proper crime scene, turning it over to a towing company without thorough investigation of important evidence like blood splatter patterns that would corroborate or complicate the testimony of various witnesses.

We believe that while the Canadian news media did report on the racist vitriol that emerged on social media in the wake of the murder, and did talk about the experiences of the victim’s family with the RCMP, they have failed to fully interrogate the racialized nature of this crime, and have allowed aspects of the racist narrative to be perpetuated in the name of some form of ‘neutrality’. We also believe that they have used language that deliberately centres the narrative on the victim, rather than the criminal, rarely using the words “The Gerald Stanley trial”, and instead placing the victim’s name in that role. This focus not only erases the actual criminal, the descriptor makes it appear that the murdered man is the one on trial. The media’s repeated use of the victim’s name also constitutes a violation of the spiritual and cultural values of his family, which is the reason that in this post, we use his name only once.

We believe that the system allowed for the creation of an all-white jury in a situation where the question of guilt hinges entirely on whether or not you believe that this white landowner was truly and reasonably fearful of these youth, and whether or not you find his story of accidental shooting to be credible. The defense was able to remove any visibly Indigenous people from the jury without explanation or justification, as many times as they liked, without question. This is a system that favours the perspective of an unmarked dominant position – it is difficult to imagine a story in which an all-Indigenous jury was allowed to decide the fate of a person like Gerald Stanley, or of any defendant for that matter.

This is a statement we are writing from our perspective as white settler anthropologists, and it is rooted in our analytical understanding – developed primarily by listening to Indigenous voices, as well as to the voices of Black activists and scholars, whose descriptions of how policing as an institution rooted in the protection of white property have helped us to recognize the depth of injustice in a country that proclaims itself (and is internationally seen as) a human rights champion. Our call to settler Canada, and to anthropologists, in response to this specific manifestation of a very deep, very broad injustice, is this:

That we write, post, and talk about the need for an appeal of this verdict, for the possibility of a mistrial, for a re-opening of this case in a way that may allow for a more fair assessment of Stanley’s actions.

That we demand an external investigation of the RCMP’s actions in this case, both in relation to the material outcomes of the trial and in relation to the emotional harms caused to the victim’s family and to all Indigenous Canadians.

That we become much louder, much more aggressive, and much more insistent on the need to counter the racist narratives that Canadians are taught in schools, in the media, and in general conversation, about Indigenous peoples.

That we constantly remind our friends and family that a 22 year old who happens to be drinking does not deserve to be murdered for getting a flat tire, and that life is infinitely more valuable than property.

That we examine the role that anthropology and other forms of scholarship have to play in re-creating the fabric of how we understand this country, and actively work to correct the colonial injustices that our discipline is built on.

That we talk to our white children about this story, and about the fear that it brings to our Indigenous friends, that we do not tell them fairy tales about how the police will always be the good guys in a story, and that we do not allow them to walk through the world unaware of the implications of their whiteness.

That we oppose the narrative of Canadian exceptionalism that says we are different, better, less racist, and more accepting than any other country in the world, that we respond to declarations that this is the best country in the world to live in with disgust and anger rather than pride, and that we demand that the insights presented in report after report about the ongoing systemic violence of colonialism (of which the TRC final report is only the most recent) become more than descriptors on a page.

That we support our Indigenous students, colleagues, and friends. That we do not center discussions around our own anger and tears and instead that we give space in our classrooms, our offices, and our institutions for those who are rightfully grieving but whose voices, emotions, and actions are already being challenged and critiqued.

 

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Teaching: Assigning Unessays

For an updated take on the unessay, see my personal blog here.

Emily Suzanne Clark

I offered the option of an unessay to my students last semester for their final papers. I did not invent the unessay. It's important first to give credit where credit is due. The idea comes from some of our wonderful colleagues in English and Digital Humanities. I was introduced to the idea of the unessay by Ryan Cordell, an English professor at Northeastern University. In his awesome post "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities," he references this assignment. He expands on the idea for a class of his here. He also pulled the idea from a couple of others, namely Michael Ullyot and Daniel Paul O'Donnell. They center the unessay on a few characteristics: students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity. (Cordell has posted some of his students' previous unessays here).

This kind of assignment intrigued me. Readers of the blog might remember that I assign faux primary sources in a couple of my courses. Last spring a Theatre major wrote and then recorded an mp3 of a Salvation Army hymn. The relative success of this assignment got me thinking: how else can I offer avenues of creativity for student assignments? This is where the unessay comes in. But it brings its own concerns: What about students who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by such an assignment? And how to heck do you assess such an assignment?

To respond to the first question, I offered the unessay this past fall as an option. Students could respond to the final paper prompt with either an essay or an unessay. So like many of us, I adapted another teacher's original creative assignment (Thanks English/DH scholars!) to suit my own needs. The final paper prompt this past fall for both my American Christianities students and my African American Religions students was the same: Pick the three most significant figures/events/communities that we covered this semester and construct an argument about their significance that makes a central claim about the story of Christianity in America or African American religions. There were two main parts of the assignment: make a case for the three choices as being the most significant and then argue a central claim or thesis. My assessment of their assignment was focused on those two parts, whether students chose to do an essay or an unessay. I warned those students who wanted to take the unessay route that they could turn in the most creative thing but they would lose points if it didn't fully answer the prompt. I figured assessing an unessay would be most difficult so I focused in on the prompt: explain your three choices and make an argument.


I think the option of the unessay worked pretty well. Not many students did an unessay, but that doesn't surprise me. There is something comforting about the traditional essay. But for those students who wanted to take a different approach, they found it freeing. One of my American Christianities students turned in an info graphic. Another wrote a short skit and turned in a script. Another created a prezi. One student in my African American Religions class was a Computer Science major and wanted to get away from computers for a weekend, so she handwrote her essay (and told me that it took longer than she thought it would). I recognize that that is not a big re-interpretation of the essay but it allowed her to do something different. Two other students in that class turned in art projects. The images here are of those. One is a collection of pencil drawings that centered on self-determination and resilience with nods to black theology, the "invisible institution," and demands for human rights. The other was a poetic short story about lynching inspired by The Crisis image "Christmas in Georgia" and the excerpts we read from James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. MLK and Malcolm X flank the scene.


Will I offer to option of the unessay again? Absolutely. It's on the syllabus for this spring.

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