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

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?

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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!

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!

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