Update Via HuffPo: The Prescott school district has withdrawn their request that the mural at Miller Valley Elementary School be lightened; it will be restored to its original design and colors. What’s more, Jeff Lane, the principal of Miller Lane Elementary School, and Kevin Kapp, the Prescott district school superintendent, have publicly apologized for asking that the faces of the children be lightened. I’ll be posting more about this later.
Original post: More unsettling news out of Arizona: A mural prominently depicting Latino and African-American local schoolchildren has become a target of racist backlash in Prescott, AZ. The artists and local residents involved in creating the mural at Miller Valley Elementary have faced heckling and racial slurs from passing drivers:
“We consistently, for two months, had people shouting racial slander from their cars,” Wall said. “We had children painting with us, and here come these yells of (epithet for Blacks) and (epithet for Hispanics).” (AZ Central)
Wall reports hearing comments such as “You’re desecrating our school,” “Get the ni—– off the wall,” and “Get the sp– off the wall.” (Daily Courier)
Meanwhile, Prescott City councilman Steve Blair has been using his radio show to stoke racial animus over the mural, calling it “pathetic” and shameful, and accusing the mural creators of “[changing] the ambience of that building to excite some kind of diversity power struggle that doesn’t exist in Prescott, Arizona.” Blair has further questioned why the largest figure in the mural is African-American (the student depicted is actually Hispanic, but why let facts get in the way) and has suggested that this decision was “based upon who’s president of the United States today.” He has also complained that the mural doesn’t represent Prescott, that “the focus doesn’t need to be on what’s different . . . [and] on the minority all the time,” and that the mural is “forcing diversity down [Prescott residents’] throats.” But perhaps my favorite comment from Blair is this delicious bit of irony: “I’m not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, but whenever people start talking about diversity, it’s a word I can’t stand.” Indeed.
The comments on local coverage of this controversy (see links above) are a sad confirmation that Blair is not alone in his sentiments. The mural has been described by some Prescott residents as “ghetto,” “graffiti,” “tacky,” “propaganda,” and – heaven forbid! – “politically correct.” A number of commenters have complained that the mural just “doesn’t fit” in Prescott, that it “does a very poor job of depicting the flavor” of the city, and that it doesn’t accurately represent the predominantly white city. A choice example:
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (but maybe it does for those of you who don’t understand Blair’s point) to know that if you have one Chinese restaurant in a town and you want to paint a mural reflecting the town’s profile, you don’t paint a bunch of Chinese kids. Before you start spewing your hate, get your facts straight. It is multiculturalism that is beginning to destroy this country…E pluribus unum. Don’t know what that means? Google it. It’s our country’s motto.
You heard it here first, folks. Apparently public art has to precisely reflect a town’s demographics. You know, ’cause statistical accuracy is what art is all about. Never mind that the mural depicts actual residents of Prescott (elementary school children! Poor kids), and never mind that the mural design was voted on by students and faculty at the school.
Now Jeff Lane, the principal of Miller Valley Elementary, has asked the artists to “lighten” the skin of the students depicted so they look “happier and brighter” and as though they are “coming into light.” The mural director says this request is a response to the controversy, but naturally, the principal claims the request stemmed from “artistic” concerns, and has “nothing do with race.”
According to Lane, the committee wanted the artists to “make them look happier and more excited, fix the scale of the faces and remove some shadowing that made the faces darker than they are.” (Daily Courier)
With the disclaimer that many white Prescott residents are supportive of the mural and abhor Blair’s comments and the hateful sentiments directed at the artists and volunteers – this response to the mural is both a textbook example of white privilege at work, and an indicator of heightened racial fear and animus among some white Americans since the election of our first African-American president. White privilege is at the root of assumptions that depicting or focusing on white people is normal, while doing the same for people of color is a decision that should automatically be questioned or challenged. White privilege is at the root of assumptions that depicting anyone other than a white person as a central figure is “propaganda.” White privilege is at the root of complaints that the mural doesn’t “fit” Prescott, simply because it prominently features people of color – despite the fact that it depicts very real residents of Prescott, and that residents of Prescott voted and and created the design for the mural. It is white privilege that assumes that white residents are more qualified or entitled than POC residents to judge what kind of representations “fit” their town. (Side note: If a mere painting of POC is so out of place in Prescott, I can’t help but wonder how well living, breathing non-white residents of Prescott feel they fit in their own city). And it’s white privilege that dismisses depictions of people of color with racist, classist terms like “ghetto,” and “graffiti,” and implies that such depictions are somehow less artistic or appropriate than representations of white or lighter-skinned people.
Similarly, the response to the mural points to growing fears among some white Americans about the changing racial landscape of the country, fears stoked primarily by the election of President Obama. It’s not surprising that Blair so quickly moved from his erroneous conclusion that the central figure of the mural was African-American boy to the assumption that this figure represented Obama in some way. It’s not surprising that Blair interpreted the design of the mural as putting an over-emphasis on the “different” and on minorities, and that he saw this as having larger political implications. Blair’s comments are just one example among many of white fears that minority success – and in this case, simply depicting a minority – must come at the expense of the majority. These fears are also symptoms of white privilege. How else can we explain the otherwise crazypants idea that merely having to look at a representation of a person of color is a challenge or offense to white people, and a provocation to a racial “power struggle?” How else can we explain why some white people feel that having to share attention, resources, or power with people of color strips them of power?
More on this at: Reappropriate.