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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update to our previous post on the Prescott Mural controversy, after local protests, the Prescott school district has withdrawn their request that the mural be lightened, and both the school’s principal and the Prescott district school superintendent have publicly apologized for asking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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So I’m late coming to the party on writing about this film, but since I finally got a chance to see it on my Christmas vacation (thanks to some free grandparent babysitting), I’m hoping my tardiness will be excused. Watching the previews for the movie made me almost cringe. It seemed to contain both cliches and sappiness, and I try to avoid both when I invest precious box office dollars and two hours of my life to movie-going. Add that hesitation to the numerous devoted praises for the film I heard coming from middle-aged white women, and it took me a few weeks to actually work up the will to go.

In case you’re on a media fast or have just been tuned out to anything non-holiday related, The Blind Side is based on a true story of the transracial adoption of a football-star-in-the-making by a wealthy, white Christian family.  As with any film that tries to capture the history of a family, there are inevitable short cuts that reduce the members of that family to simpler characters.  But when artfully done, characters, even those based on real people, can be numerous and still retain a dynamism that makes them believable. The Blind Side did not accomplish that, despite a decent representation of seasoned players (Sandra Bullock, and even Kathy Bates) in the cast.

The unfortunate part of the film’s failure on that count is that the most truncated character is, wait for it, the black kid. My husband summed up Michael Oher as “that big guy who walked around sad for most of the movie. Every time you see him, he’s sad-walking. Walking sad in the ghetto. Walking sad at the new school. Walking sad into the laundromat.” We’re told by Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, that Michael has changed her life, that having him around has made her happy. But we have no idea why.  When they go shopping, he picks out horizontally-striped rugby shirts to the bemusement of the family.  This little footnote is, sadly, given to us as one of the dimensions of his character.

We are told who Michael is entirely by other [white] characters.  There is only one scene in the film where he demonstrates anything other than utter gratitude and love for his new family, and the scene is short-lived as the conflict is all-too-quickly resolved in such a slick manner that I wonder why they even included it in the movie. Michael, in many ways, is portrayed as a phlegmatic, gentle giant, a defender of the Tuohy family without much else to think about or do through the course of the film.  Some commentators have expressed the concern that the use of such a trope might invite the stereotype of the magical negro or even the eunuch, whose only purpose is to aide the white characters in their development.

Michael’s challenges are often oversimplified and understated.  He has a hard time in school, but thanks to an observant science teacher and an at-home tutor, he finds his way past his reading impediments.  Deeper problems are treated likewise.  While the film doesn’t shy away from having a drug dealer use sexually graphic language to threaten Michael’s white sister, in describing the sexual activity Michael was exposed to as a child, the script has Michael describe his experience at home as “mom did drugs or other bad stuff.”  While Leigh Anne is portrayed as imperiled when she drives through the ghetto (even though she’s armed, or so she tells the drug dealer who threatens her: she’s a member of the NRA, she pats her purse), Michael is depicted as invulnerable.  In one scene he is surrounded by gun-wielding criminals and as they pull their weapons on him, he sweeps them away with almost supernatural (say, magical?) physicality, warding off an attack with his bare hands.

The story takes place in the South, a setting that creates its own implied social and racial dynamics, and I expected the challenges of transracial adoption to be amplified by that fact.  The  film does try, showing Leigh Anne behaving as a white ally at different points identifying as Michael’s even when it costs her relationships with her rich, white “friends.” She also takes the initiative to seek out Michael’s absentee mother for her blessing before arranging for his official adoption, even though the state wouldn’t extend her the same courtesy or dignity.  Time and again, she travels into Michael’s old neighborhood, braving whatever discomfort or insecurity she might feel in that setting.

But the film deals exclusively in those extremes: glorious white wealth versus desperate black poverty.  One moment in particular for me served as a metaphor for what was missing in the movie.  Michael and the family are out for a fancy dinner.  As the family leaves the restaurant, he returns because he recognizes one of the waiters.  He says nothing, but goes back inside.  “Where’s Michael?”  The family turn and sees through a window that Michael is embracing a waiter.  They stand outside watching Michael hug the man and when he comes outside, we learn the man is his brother that he hasn’t seen since they were separated by social services as children.

As they drive away, Leigh Anne says she’d like to meet him sometime.  While Leigh Anne can go out of her way to sit next to Michael’s mother on her couch in the projects, for some reason, she cannot bring herself to go inside the restaurant to talk to a man who is clearly important to Michael and say, “Hey Michael, who’s your friend?”  Here she’s introduced to a character who doesn’t appear to need rescuing, and so she stands looking in from the outside, uncharacteristically reluctant to intrude on the scene.

While I am troubled by elements of the film, I am not prepared to classify it as a “white savior” story.  There are kids that need loving homes.  For some kids, adoption, even transracial adoption, is a form of rescue.  And that is not a bad thing.  It sounds like that was the situation for the real-life Michael.  But even if those are the circumstances that create a family in the beginning, building a family is a lifelong process and the challenges and conflicts that are part of that process shouldn’t be glossed over for the sake of making movie-goers feel good at the holidays. I have no doubt that what goes on in the real-life Tuohy family is much deeper than what I saw onscreen.  It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t even get a microcosm of that up there.

The Blind Side fails because it tries to prove the humanity and dignity of a kid from the ghetto by focusing entirely on the family that took him in and reducing him to a flat, uninteresting character that Sandra Bullock brought home from school one day.  With a few football drills and a couple suburban road humps along the way, we’re all fine and post-racial at the end.  Race. Family. Faith.  Community. It’s just not that easy.

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This week Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary.  I think the appropriate gift for 40 years is rubies, but since wisdom is better, I thought I’d share a little Street smarts:

If you have a favorite memory or clip from the show, feel free to post it in the comments.

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Many people are familiar with the story of the “flesh” colored crayon.  Part of Crayola’s second wave of color creation and from 1949-1962, the “flesh” crayon was a peachy-pink indicative of the white supremacist culture of the day.  There is no way of knowing how many children of color told their stories with colors deemed less-than-flesh:  goldenrod, sepia, raw sienna, raw umber.  Many of us even remember the “indian red” crayon that was only recently renamed in 1999 for obvious reasons.

Flesh-colored crayons

Crayola’s chronology website is open about its shady past, and while this particular staple of American childhood has grown up, many of the tools parents trust in their attempts to raise well-rounded, confident kids remain problematic.

Since the inception of Irene’s Daughters a few months ago, Nikki, Kate and I have all been talking about “bookshelf diversity.”  In case you are just getting to know us, I highly recommend our Reading List tab where you can find great resources for a beginning or veteran anti-racist that might serve to balance your bookshelves.

Tilted Bookshelf
Over the last week or so, we’ve been having an off-blog e-mail discussion about kids’ books.  Kate has a young niece and Nikki and I both have children, so the topic is important to each of us.  As a parent, I am always on the lookout for books that feature situations, themes, and topics that will help my kids learn about their world and themselves.  These books can vary from those that teach about colors, to those that teach about family, to those that teach about feelings and friends, and some that teach about all of that.

While we three could all spend countless hours crawling the internet for helpful articles, bookstores or websites, we decided that we’d let our readers in on the fun and create a new tab just for Children’s Books.  We will continue to add to the current list, but we wanted to open the floor to you folks and see what books you recommend.

We are also trying to provide information about the books, such as:

  • Reading Level: what age group is this book intended for? (these numbers indicate reading skill level, not necessarily age-appropriateness; many of these books could be read aloud to younger children)
  • Time Setting: is the story contemporary, historical (e.g. historical: 19th century; historical: Civil Rights movement), or myth/folktale/fantasy?
  • Place Setting: what country (e.g. United States) or region (e.g. New England, Southwest) is the book set in? is the setting urban/suburban/small town/rural/ambiguous?
  • Characters: are the main characters multiracial/multiethnic or predominantly one race/ethnicity?
  • Theme: is race or racism a theme?
  • Author(s)/Illustrator(s): what race or ethnicity are they?

At this point, we haven’t grouped the books by any sort of category.  We’re still debating the best way to organize it, but our main goal is to present works that promote bookshelf diversity.  We are looking for authors of color, characters of color or multiracial storytelling, contemporary and historic depictions of anti-racism, and anything that almost fits or fits all of the above criteria. We’re going for quality here, though quantity is also welcome.

We may also periodically offer our own reading lists and reviews in the form of blog posts, just as we do from time to time about reading material for grown-ups.  As we’ve discussed before, the world of publishing is tricky to navigate when it comes to these issues.  Many books about African Americans are set during the time of slavery.  Many books about Asians are set in foreign countries or ancient times.  Books about Native Americans often focus on folklore only.

We will undoubtedly talk about all of these subjects at various points, but know that we are not going into this endeavor “colorblind” to the tendency of the publishing world to stereotype or ignore authors and characters of color, and cater to certain “desirable” market demographics in discussions about race and prejudice.

We hope you’ll join us.  As we’ve said before and as we will continue to say, we’re all learning here.  Feel free to pick up a crayon (or more helpful, put your hands on the keyboard) and share a story or two with us.

Cave Bookshelf

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