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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!)

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.

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

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Alison M Collins

Alison M Collins

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