Let’s talk about (stereotypes in the) Washington Murals…

Alison M Collins

By now, you’ve probably heard something about the SF School Board’s historic decision to remove the offensive murals at Washington High School.

While it’s not surprising, news coverage has failed to represent perspectives from groups who have been negatively impacted by the murals: namely, Black and Indigenous students and families.

Indigenous families in SFUSD have officially asked for the removal of the murals for three years running, saying the murals traumatize students and reinforce stereotypes about their community. Black students, parents and community members have also protested the mural’s flawed portrayals of their history since the mid 60’s.

With this in mind, I wanted to share what I’ve learned from the important conversations I’ve been listening to.

What’s wrong with the murals?

While I’ve been aware of concerns about representation in the murals, I never fully understood how problematic they were from an Indigenous perspective. Truth be told, even though I am Black, I am still a product of our American education system. I now realize, I have internalized many problematic ideas about Indigenous history and culture based on what I have been taught.

The following are a list of harmful stereotypical narratives the murals “teach” students followed by the truths we should be teaching instead:

Problematic narrative: Black History is a story of victimization.

Black students have expressed — for over 50 years — that images of them shucking corn and picking cotton are demeaning and they do a disservice to the many contributions African Americans have made to this country. In fact, history is full of stereotypical images of African suffering, victimhood, and brutality which consistently reinforce ideas of Africans and their descendants as a broken, helpless race. Teaching Tolerance states it is “critical that teachers show that people of African descent have contributed more than forced, free labor to U.S. history.” Antiracist educators argue when we focus solely on slavery we reinforce ideas that Black folks are “less than” and diminish our important political, intellectual, and cultural contributions. Board President Stevon Cook wrote about this eloquently in his SF Examiner OpEd.

Truth: Black history is more than slavery. Black folks were architects, inventors, artists, mathematicians, scientists and more!

This emblem was used by abolitionists to make a case against slavery. Images like this have come under controversy over whether they degrade enslaved Africans and glorify their (mainly) white liberators.

Problematic narrative: White people are individuals while members of a marginalized group are “all the same.”

Indigenous peoples depicted in the murals come from a made-up tribe. Indigenous people take immense pride in their tribal affiliations and don’t appreciate the ways they are constantly depicted as some kind of Pan-Indian-mash-up created by non-Indigenous folks. Failing to represent an actual tribe is a form of cultural erasure and equivalent to a reporter writing about “an Asian country” instead of naming, say “China” (which I’m sure you’d agree is pretty racist.) Not all Asian countries are the same, and neither are Indigenous tribes. A style guide for the media explains this well.

Truth: Tribal affiliation is important. Each tribe is a sovereign nation unto itself with its own language and traditions.

Many folks are aware of the common racist stereotype that all Asians “look alike”. It is clearly illustrated in the this popular children’s book above. The first sentence even begins: “Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike.”

Problematic narrative: Indigenous people are uncivilized and must be managed.

Indigenous people are consistently portrayed naked. Just like European settlers, Indigenous people wore clothing. Imagine our founding fathers (or your ancestors for that matter) being depicted in their underwear in every painting ever made. Showing Indigenous folks this way is stereotypical and reinforces the idea that Indigenous folks are wild, childish, or savage. As we know, this is untrue, and in many cases Indigenous cultures were more civilized than the settlers who stole their land.

Read more about Indigenous stereotyping in this report by the SF Human Rights Commission, titled Discrimination by Omission.

Truth: Indigenous people had a wealth of knowledge prior to contact with Europeans.

Last March, the Skowhegan school became the the last in Maine to end the use of Native American nicknames and imagery for its sports teams. Proponents of keeping the mascot as an homage to the area’s history.

Problematic narrative: Indigenous people are violent and colonizers were justified in killing them to protect themselves.

Images of scalp carrying Indians are deeply offensive to Indigenous families. While historians say both Indigenous folks and white folks scalped one another, European settlers were the only ones who were paid money from the US Government for scalps, and many contend scalping was originally brought to North America by English colonizers who had been doing it for at least four centuries before settlers arrived. This history was erased by old-time stories about cowboys and Indians in the “Wild West.” The idea that Indigenous people were the ones who scalped the “good guys” reinforces narratives that Indians were inherently violent and settlers were justified in killing them, when in fact they were more often the targets of aggression. (Yikes!)

Imagine knowing your FULL history as a Indigenous student and seeing it inaccurately depicted on the walls of your school?

Truth: The violence that Indigenous people faced from settler colonizers was systematic and sanctioned by the US Government. Images portraying Indigenous people as violent were used to justify their genocide and theft of their land.

This cartoon features the old Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo.

Representation Matters!

Listening to Indigenous and Black students and families, and having my own conversations about implicit bias has helped me better understand why the murals are not just “about racism,” as many folks claim. The murals are actually teaching harmful ideas about Black and Indigenous communities, thus perpetuating the very racism they purportedly expose.

My father grew up as a Black man in Jim Crow America. In his time, it was not uncommon to see racist memorabilia such as Mammy salt-shakers and Minstrel dolls in American homes. As a Black person, I have a visceral understanding of why these items were harmful because I knew the lies they told about my community. There is nothing inherently racist about a black child eating watermelon. Nonetheless this image has been used to create caricatures that demean and dehumanize Black people.

I can’t imagine how painful it would have been for my father to grow up seeing stereotypical images like these. Even though he was a successful student, he told me about many negative experiences he had at his all-white elementary school. In fact, during my father’s first grade year, his mother actually had to meet with his teacher because my father was cast as the Tar Baby in the class play of Brer Rabbit. While it seems obvious today, my father’s teacher was unaware that her casting was hurtful. Hearing this story reminds me to listen to members of other communities when they are trying to educate me about harmful stereotypes.

These images come from the 1946 Walt Disney feature Song of the South.

Thankfully, nowadays it would be considered inappropriate to paint a mural with Black children eating watermelon or fried chicken. It would also be inappropriate to paint a mural with a Mexican-American sitting under a cactus sleeping underneath a sombrero. Unfortunately, Indigenous people are still fighting to remove many of the racist images that are persistent in everyday society: from team mascots like the Redskins, to racist sculptures like the Early Days statue (which was only recently removed from San Francisco last year.) This article describes how settler colonialism plays out in really problematic ways in our society.

It goes without saying, images have immense power to frame people’s understanding of the world. It is important to be careful about the images we place on school walls and in our childrens’ textbooks. Images that perpetuate stereotypes are especially harmful because they teach internalized racism and implicit bias. If you see an image enough times you start to believe the message it conveys.

Images have the power lift a community up or tear it down. Black and indigenous kids deserve to see themselves as the heroes and heroines of their own stories. They shouldn’t have to avert their eyes or hang their heads, as students have said, when entering the lobby of their school each day. Additionally, students from other backgrounds deserve to learn the truth.

Many children are still learning lies about Black and Indigenous people in our society. If we want to change this, it is important for white folks to “share the mic” and share power. Let us tell our own stories about our history and culture. This is especially true for the Indigenous community!

As a parent, and an educator, I agree with my colleagues on the Board, we cannot allow harmful racist messages to be communicated by our teachers, our textbooks, or even the paintings on school walls.

There is still much work to be done to ensure all kids see themselves and their communities as valued and visible in our schools! Stay tuned to hear more about a new Equity Studies Resolution I have co-authored with Commissioner Jenny Lam!

I’m sad to say the stereotypical images are not the most troubling aspect of the Washington Murals. There is also a problem in the way violence is displayed. I will talk about that in a future post!

Alison M Collins

Written by

mom of twins. education nerd. public school warrior. reformed cat-lady. amateur urbanist. social justice addict. BLERD. & most recently Board of Ed Commissioner

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