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As mentioned in an update to our previous post on the Prescott Mural controversy, after local protests, the Prescott school district has withdrawn their request that the mural be lightened, and both the school’s principal and the Prescott district school superintendent have publicly apologized for asking that the faces of the children be lightened (video below).  I loved that their apologies were clear and to the point, and didn’t involve any excuses, blame-shifting, or minimizing – just simple statements of “We made a mistake” and “we’re sorry.”  How often do we hear apologies like that from public officials anymore, not least about racially charged issues?  Kudos to them for being to admit a mistake and taking steps to correct it.  And kudos to the residents of Prescott who stood up against racism in their city! (h/t Huffington Post)

Meanwhile, Steve Blair’s comments (transcript here) about the mural have led to significant public criticism, his ouster from his show on a local radio station, and calls for him to resign from his position as a city councilman.  Unfortunately, Councilman Blair has responded to the criticism of his comments not by taking some time to think about why they were offensive, but by repeating a number of his most problematic comments, taking the opportunity to make even more racist and privileged criticisms of the mural, and painting himself as a victim who was just trying to defend his city and “stand up for what’s right.”  Because, y’all, complaining about the prominent featuring of a child of color on a mural is a matter of moral integrity.  Take, for example, Blair’s defense of himself in an interview with the Prescott eNews (below, h/t Reappropriate), or his statement to the press on the controversy (video here).

Blair’s view is that he was fired simply for “asking a question.”  The closest he comes to making any apology for his comments is that “the question probably was poorly worded, and in retrospect, I also admit that it was probably offensive to some,” and that he “made assumptions and then . . . took an unfounded leap of logic” that the mural was supposed to be “factual, [functional, and] representative of the community here in Prescott, AZ.  And being a number cruncher in my business, I automatically assumed that the larger figure equated to the larger number of the demographics.”  Huh?  Not only is that a seriously weak sauce apology, it doesn’t even make sense.  Would Blair really have us believe that he thinks public art depicting people is necessarily some sort of statistical representation of a city’s population?

It gets stranger:

“The mural is a big change for a historic red brick building so many of enjoy [sic] over the years.  That, along with the scale of the boy central to the art, is startling at first blush.  That was my mistake.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, before I made the comments about the mural at all, I should have come down to speak with the artists, find out for myself what the mural meant, and what it was all about, because I still don’t believe the community knows what it was all about.  For the record, nobody has come to me once to say, “hey Steve, let us explain the mural to you, and what it means, what the designer and the artist intended.”  That might have helped educate me in what I obviously needed to know to help prevent such notoriety that we’ve had in this community.  Instead, others have made assumptions, and jumped to conclusions on their own.  They assume because they asked the question, that I was a racist and bigot.”

That right there is a mess of white privilege.  Blair assumes not only that his startled and confused reaction (to put it nicely) to the mural should be validated and taken seriously, but also that it’s the job of other people to educate him about what the mural means – including what it “means” to have a child of color prominently featured on the mural – and why he shouldn’t disapprove of it (“I want somebody to tell me why I should like that.  That’s what I want somebody to tell me.  Why should I like that?”).  He assumes that because he doesn’t know what the mural’s message is, neither does the “community,” and that because he wasn’t involved in the process of approving the mural design, neither was the “community.”  One has to wonder whether for him, the “community” means the white residents of Prescott who also “can’t stand” the word “diversity.”

As Reappropriate points out, as a city councilman, Blair should have been involved in, or at least aware of, council votes to approve other eco-themed mural designs by the same committee of artists, so his complaint that decisions were made without the approval or knowledge of the “community” rings hollow.  And if he was truly in the dark about the mission behind the murals, one would think a city councilman could at least pick up his local newspaper and educate himself about it.

The bottom line is, Blair and other residents of Prescott, objected to the presence of a child of color as the central figure in piece of public art, because of the (perceived) race of that child.  That’s racist.  And as for questioning why ethnic minorities should ever be depicted in public art?  That’s privilege.

Councilman Blair, you may not be a racist or a bigot.  But when you demand an explanation for why a person of color should be prominently featured in public art and and imply that depictions of POC should be completely absent from public art, what you say sounds racist.

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photo credit: Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier

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)

And:

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)

Oooook then.

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.

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