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Supplemental materials for teachers and readers interested in exploring some of the topics raised in Accountable

What Does Accountability Mean?
A Conversation with Aishatu Yusuf

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One of the things I've been thinking about is this question of accountability. People need to know that somebody is taking responsibility, and in some way is being held to account for what they've done. Does accountability just mean I take responsibility for what I did? Or does there have to be some kind of consequence for it to feel like there was a just result?

Dashka Slater

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Aishatu Yusuf

We have been conditioned that accountability means pain, and punishment. Because that conditioning exists, until that understanding is challenged or re-imagined, we act out these inaccurate forms of accountability. And so, I guess for me, accountability is an understanding that a harm took place, and that you, your body, is responsible for a piece of the harm that happened. That is accountability. Accountability is not prison, is not jail, is not a beating, is not a spanking. That's not accountability. Because I can beat you and throw you in jail, and you may not have done a single thing wrong. I could put you in an electric chair, and if you feel like you didn't do anything, it doesn't matter if I punish you or not. In those instances, no one is accountable. The conflation of accountability and punishment is what leads to continued, archaic activities that solve nothing. The question I’m often asking, is: “Is our goal to prevent this crime or action from happening again, or just to punish an individual?”

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So, does accountability look different for different people and in different situations? Because we know that Black people and white people don’t experience the justice system in the same way.

Dashka Slater

There are too many instances when young people, particularly non-Black and specifically young white people cause harm, and often, the rhetoric or rationale surrounding the incident places the blame on someone or something other than the young person. A few examples of this are the far too many school shootings that have taken place that are carried out primarily by white boys and young men. The like-clockwork conversation surrounding the incident is often about whether the shooter was bullied at school, how their parents treated them, if they suffered from addiction. 

For clarity, these are very valid questions to ask and worthy of investigation. However, in contrast, when there is a discussion regarding gun violence in brown and Black neighborhoods, the conversations surrounding the incident are: “Well, that young person had a previous record,” “Those kids from that neighborhood are violent.” “Do those young people have parents?” etc. What these quick anecdotal examples demonstrate is that the assumption of guilt or how we view people in our society is based on racialized and racist, ingrained ideologies that too often play out in what people look like, and the color of their skin. History indicates that the current functioning of the criminal legal system was created in racist ideologies. It just so happens, over time, white people, including non-poor white are now impacted by the system their ancestors created to cage Black, Indigenous, and poor bodies. 

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Aishatu Yusuf

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When you look at a system that was designed unequally and perpetuates inequality and perpetuates racism, how do you factor in the past? So, if you have some white boys who traditionally have not been held accountable, what is a just way to look at their actions? Because they're not responsible for what happened before. And yet, they are still the products of, and beneficiaries of, an unjust system. 

Dashka Slater

Yeah. That's a tough question, and that's one that I'm going to answer, I think, in many ways. So, where it's hard is because as Black people, and I will generalize here for a moment.— as Black people, we still live in a society that acts as if justice has been provided to us. Obama was president. That's great. Kamala Harris is vice president, that's great. Not to minimize those historical accomplishments, and yet things haven't necessarily changed in terms of what happens to brown, Black and  immigrant bodies across this nation and globally. That hasn't changed much. We cannot conflate individual or community accomplishments, for justice, fairness, or equality. What ends up happening consistently, and there's tons of evidence to support this, is Black, brown, indigenous and immigrant people are always asked to show mercy. They're always asked to have compassion when they have been harmed. Our communities are also, typically, more religious, or spiritual -- they often feel like there's a higher power. And so, it's not happenstance that often, after a murder of a Black person, massacre, or violent attack  the survivor, family, or religious leader gets up and says, "We forgive you." 

 

But now, what we often see, especially in new generations, like Millennials, Gen-Z, a lot of them are like “F it. Let them fry. Let them die, throw them in prison.” And I think, they— we— are entitled to those feelings. I empathize and understand the sentiment around it. It's the idea that there is no evidence to support the belief that the world is changing for me. And if the world isn't changing for me, and my people are going to keep being persecuted, oppressed, and killed, why do I have to act differently? Why do we need to forgive? Let’s treat the oppressors  how they treat us.

 

People love Dr. Martin Luther King. Love to bring him up and say, "He was non-violent." And one response you hear now is, "Yeah, then he got shot." Folks love to bring up Rosa Parks, and now we hear, "Yeah, then she got dragged off a bus." People love to surface all of these non-violent heroes and use them as anecdotes of how they think the oppressed should act. But the response I hear a lot these days is, "Yeah, but when we did that, acted nonviolently, we got beat, hosed and thrown in jail, so why?”


So, what I often say is: if I believe in third and fourth, and fifth chances for people that have been convicted or committed crimes, I believe in chances for everyone, across race. If I believe in the possibility of change, I have to believe that period. I don't believe that incarceration is an acceptable response for crime, regardless of race. So, when I see crimes committed by white people, I often do not believe that a punitive, carceral response is appropriate for them either. And I also know that when a Black person commits the same or even a less serious crime as a white person they will be criminalized, they will be punished. So, I sit with this very uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, almost daily.

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Aishatu Yusuf

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It’s like there are only two options, punitive and permissive, and neither one feels like justice.

Dashka Slater

The way in which punishment is rendered in our society is wrong, and it is the most wrong for Black people. It’s not that I want our system to work as it does primarily for white people. It’s that I want the system to work period. I want a new system. I want people that cause harm, to understand what they have done, I want them to understand the pain of the survivor, I want them to have an opportunity to decide whether they will be accountable, understanding that accountability doesn’t always happen overnight and I want the response to the harm they caused to be conducted in a way that isn’t meeting violence with violence, but through a system designed to repair relationship and damage. So, even in my hardest moments—because, trust me I have them, because I cannot separate my Black womanhood from the work I do, or how I traverse the world —even on those days, when I’m so angry and heartbroken and I’m leaning more heavily to how some of my peers and the generation below me respond to the continuous abuse our people face, that fact is, the system does not work, for anyone. And regardless of how angry I feel at any given time, transforming our system of justice is what is necessary for everyone, across race. And specifically for Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor people.  

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Aishatu Yusuf

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What’s interesting is that the same conversations that we see about the criminal justice system are also happening about the justice we see in schools— particularly suspensions and expulsions.

Dashka Slater

I don't believe suspension or expulsion is ever a solution for anything. It's a ridiculous response to student misbehavior. And, when you look at who gets suspended and for what reasons, according to many school’s codes of conduct, white students often are suspended for the reasons indicted as an action that warrants a suspension, based on school policy.  What you often see is that for a white student to be suspended from school, literally it means they engaged in a pretty offensive action; like, bringing a firearm on the school campus, or sexual assaulted. On the other side of that, what data shows is that when Black students are suspended, it’s often for something that is more subjective. Like, a Black student says F you to the teacher, or they are being “ disruptive.” This is not to say Black students do not also commit serious misbehavior in school. What I’m saying, is that data indicates that Black children are overwhelmingly suspended for subjective misbehaviors. So, in a punitive system, like how many schools, unfortunately currently operate, the system works as designed; White students receive severe responses to severe misbehavior. However, for Black students, because these systems are operated by humans, and systemic, engrained, conscious, and implicit bias and racism exist, the system does not work for Black kids. They often received severe responses to moderate and subjective misbehavior. 


If you think about the justice system, it operates similarly. The crimes for which white people are typically incarcerated, more often are more severe crimes. Whereas, the crimes that Black and brown people are incarcerated for, are often the crimes that white people are provided lesser, more lenient sentences for. So, if the system sends white people working through addiction to mental health facilities to get treatment rather than jail, everyone should have the opportunity to go to a mental health facility for treatment rather than jail. If we are forced to work with the systems we currently have,  then that should be the bar.

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Aishatu Yusuf

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What I often hear from young people is sort of the reverse. Like the bar should be how Black people are treated. So, let's punish whoever it is to the extent that they would be punished if they were Black.

Dashka Slater

And young people say that, because that's how they feel, they are angry, that is their reality. I really empathize with that sentiment. I don’t want to speak for those young people, but I suspect, that through that anger, those young people are not totally grappling with what that could possibly mean for all of us, and future generations. Because at the end of the day, people will commit crimes, regardless of race. People are humans. There's going to be a crime committed. And, if we don't break the cycle to what's currently happening, everyone falls into that bucket. Whatever gains we have made, which there have been many, will be for naught. If we punish people unjustly, how Black people have been punished, then we don't get to work towards a society that operates in a way where accountability is actually a conversation about what happened, why it happened and how do we prevent it from happening again.

 

And so, I think that when young people are saying everyone should suffer as Black people have suffered, that's from a place of rage. It's from a place of anger, and they are absolutely entitled to that. And I think the second piece of that conversation is “Well, what is the world you want to see?” And if you tell me the world you want to see, how is it that your actions help us get there? What I would say to those young people, is that you don’t have to forgive white people to make the world you want to see. You don't have to like those white kids that received better treatment than your friends, to get a world that you want to see. But you do have to begin to see the humanity in every single person to get to the world that we want to see. 

 

That feels like a terrible answer because people are angry. I’m angry. But that's literally the only answer. And I think we conflate working toward a better world with being silent. We conflate working towards a better world with being accepting of bad behavior. We conflate working toward a better world with being docile. They are not the same. As an example, for me to say that suspension is a terrible response to misbehavior in schools—by no means does that take away from the fact that historically Black students are disproportionately criminalized and suspended at higher rates than white students. It also does not mean I will be silent about the injustice of punitive school treatment; it does not mean I will not rally with like-minded people to demand change. What I’m saying is, if we can stop suspension, if we can help schools move to a more restorative, and just practice, everyone benefits.

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Aishatu Yusuf

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Right. But that means that you're saying we're never going to settle the score. We're not going to get to a place where everybody's suffered the same amount. Which is a big thing to swallow. 

Dashka Slater

Just to be clear, no there is no “settle the score” of genocide, of enslavement, of chain gangs of indentured servitude, of sexual abuse. There is no level of white guilt that can make any of those facts feel better. There is no conceivable way for people that come from the lineages of colonizers to make good on what their ancestors did to mine, or other brown, Asian, and Indigenous people. However, there are ways to begin to repair harm, to repair relationships. That starts with honesty. Creating history books that tell true narratives and tell them from the perspective of survivors. That starts with telling narratives not only of the enslavement of Black people but about the beautiful history, culture, and greatness of our people. That starts with advocating and supporting policies that provide access and resources for marginalized communities, with asking Black and brown folks about what they need, and how their needs are met. That starts with being introspective and understanding the ways in which power and privilege operate. That starts with questions about the things you were taught and the biases you possess. A Black Lives Matter sign does not assuage what has and is happening. We started this conversation about accountability: this is how accountability can begin for many people in this country. Oh, and we will also take reparations.

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Aishatu Yusuf

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