Teachers 4 Social Justice Statement on Washington Murals
Teachers 4 Social Justice stands in full solidarity with the Native/Indigenous and Black communities that are demanding that the “Life of Washington” murals at George Washington High School be painted over.
These murals are located on unceded Raymatush Ohlone territory. Teachers 4 Social Justice believes in reparations and restorative justice. We must listen to Indigenous voices and take action according to their demands. Any discussion about keeping the murals is disrespectful of the call for repairing harm and healing.
The mural depicts an image of a murdered Indigenous person, as well as several other Indigenous persons painted in stereotypical, inaccurate ways. The mural also depicts African Americans only as enslaved people, supporting the problematic narrative that Black history is a history of victimization. These images of Native Americans and African Americans are demeaning to the Indigenous and Black students who attend GWHS daily. They are harmful to all students because they reinforce false narratives about Indigenous Peoples and African Americans. We have heard the argument that the artist’s intent was to critique George Washington as a murderer and enslaver. Regardless of the intent, it is clear that the continued existence of the murals has a negative impact on the students in the school, as many of them have voiced for many years. For that reason, the murals must be painted over.
Teachers 4 Social Justice believes it is critical for defenders of the murals to recognize that this mural is located in a school, not a museum. While artistic expression and the preservation of art has its place in the community, publicly displayed and sanctioned art has a responsibility to honor and respect those most impacted. As teachers who attempt to educate from a stance of social justice, history and its horrors are incredibly important to us. Some critics of the movement to paint over the mural have argued that painting it over will erase history. There are thousands of ways to teach history, and that history is always still with us. As Nation writer Jennifer Wilson reminds us, “Black and Native American people confront the realities of history every day in the form of job discrimination, police violence, environmental racism, health-care disparity, and other injustices that have roots in our nation’s history.” We very much live with the legacy of historic and present-day racism. Painting down this mural will become part of its history. It will also contribute to a history of organized groups of people building movements, taking collective action, and making demands for institutional change.
For many of us, the teaching of our histories of oppression is emotional. It can be traumatic for both teachers and students. When we study this history, we approach it with rigor and serious intent, but we also allow space for emotional responses and dignified ‘outs’ for students. Our practices might include checking in with our African-American students about what they might need to be able to stay present during a unit on slavery in a class that has few African-American students; or offering students time for short reflection check-ins with trusted friends in the space. With a conscientious facilitator, we can face the pain of our histories in ways that still allow for student dignity and choice. A mural in a hallway does not allow for this kind of adaptation. We do not seek to avoid history, and in fact we can’t; instead, we seek to make space for students to engage with their own histories in a manner that feels as dignified and human as possible.
The conversations about these murals have raised questions about both the purposes of art and the ways in which we must face history. As educators, we can neither advocate forcing students to view provocative art nor graphic historical images for the sake of preserving the artist’s intent or making kids ‘deal with’ history in a decontextualized image like a mural. Ideally, our classrooms are providing spaces in which students can raise those questions themselves and come to their own conclusions with the benefit of an educator who is committed to the rigor of exploring the purposes of art and the trauma of history while centering the experiences of her students.
Teachers 4 Social Justice firmly believes that the “Life of Washington” murals must be painted down.
For further reading, Teachers 4 Social Justice recommends the following resources:
Let’s talk about the (stereotypes in the) Washington Murals…
By now, you’ve probably heard something about the Board’s historic decision to remove offensive murals at Washington…
Remember history, remember relevance
One of the leaders working to take down the New Deal-era murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco…
Black People Don't Need Murals To Remember Injustice
On June 25, the San Francisco school board voted unanimously to paint over a series of murals at George Washington High…
At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense
Have a personal story or opinion on something happening in California or the Sacramento region that you think our…
Opinion | Why a San Francisco Mural Must Come Down
The San Francisco Board of Education explains its decision to remove an artwork that it says is harmful to historically…
Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) is a grassroots Bay Area non-profit organization. Founded in 1999 by a group of San Francisco public school teachers, T4SJ organizes a network of over 4,000 educators and works to support social justice teaching and learning through public events, mobilizations and sharing resources. T4SJ strives to provide programs and projects that develop empowering learning environments, more equitable access to resources and power, and realizing a just and caring culture in our communities and schools.