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Another mural whiteout – this time in Seattle

July 1, 2010

Last month I posted about the mural of children in Arizona that wasn’t white enough for some people:  Using whiteout on a mural of children.  Now I’m further disturbed to find that Seattle has its own similar story of changing a mural to reflect more whiteness.

This time it’s caused by an intention to avoid racist artwork and it reveals how much ignorance still surrounds us all.

The mural is in the industrial district in front of a Grocery Outlet store. It displays a tree and bushels of grapes with two people. Originally the artist painted them to represent Hispanic farm workers, a reality in Washington state. A picture of the mural appeared in the Seattle Times on Thursday, June 17th (I haven’t been able to locate the picture online).  By the time the official unveiling happened the next day, the mural had changed and a woman with a blond braid and pink ponytail holder had replaced one of the Hispanic workers in the mural.

Seattle mural raises questions of stereotyping

The VP of Marketing who commissioned the mural said that when she looked at the finished product she saw “old world type workers” and was concerned about racial stereotyping.  Hmmm, just what old world does this woman live in?  Apparently one very unconnected to the farm workers in this state. 

She wanted to make the figures “timeless” and “ethnically neutral.”  The painter said he was asked to make them look “more American.”  These are the rationalized framings that are used as whiteout to erase the presence of those who don’t look like the majority.

When the revised mural was unveiled, the VP was surprised to hear a complaint from a woman in the store who had noticed the change from the original painting. The woman felt it was disrespectful to Hispanic farm workers – just the thing the VP had hoped to avoid.

It all might have happened differently if:

  • The VP had actually talked to some people from the migrant farm worker communities and asked them their opinion before the mural was done instead of her going to them now as she has said she will do.
  • The VP had actually talked to the artist instead of letting a contractor be the go-between in the discussions before, during, and after the changes.
  • The VP had explored how her own white viewpoint might be impacting these decisions.

This is a classic example of intention versus impact. I believe the VP had good intentions and her socialization into whiteness has made her ignorant. This impact was very different than she had hoped.

It could have happened to many of us and we need to learn from this example so it doesn’t get repeated.  Because day after day this kind of ignorance manifests and day after day, people of color bear the impact of our ignorance that is painful and cumulative.

Good intentions are not enough.  Ignorance is not acceptable. We who are white need to do our own work about racism to stop further whiteout from erasing our common humanity.

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2 comments

  1. What makes me shake my head is that there are many readers who are like “Well, then what WERE we supposed to paint then?? If we show people of colors we’re racist. If we don’t show them, we’re racist. We should only paint bunnies or something?”

    Underlying that is a deep need to avoid questioning the idea of majority and minority peoples. Statistically speaking, European descended people are only 8-10% of the world’s population. That a minority of persons could honestly come to think of themselves as “neutral” racially outside of Europe is astounding. HOW did this statistical minority of the human population leave their geographical origins, the only place where they were the majority, and re-establish themselves as the dominant population in locations far and wide? How exactly does one maintain such an incredible outcome and then turn around and call it a “neutral” racial experience?

    These are dangerous questions to ask of a people whose identity depends on seeing themselves as the default standard of the Human Race. “Only WE are what people should look like. WE are normal, WE are unoffensive. WE are entitled to see only ourselves represented everywhere we go.”

    Why is depicting the current racial reality so offensive? Because it IS offensive. Migrant farmers ARE exploited, ARE ignored, and ARE quite essential to the local (and national) economy. An economy that operates to the direct benefit of the White majority. It was never actual migrant farmers the VP was afraid of offending… it was everybody else who benefits from migrants’ thankless work, but don’t wish to be reminded of that.


    • These are critical points, Jane. It’s remarkable to me that many white Europeans are not really cognizant of the fact that we are not the majority everywhere in the world. We have been consistently fed a story (through education, media,and other white-controlled institutions) that has us as the main characters and then we are often shocked and fearful when something challenges that “story.”

      As long as we stay wrestling with surface questions, i.e. what do we paint, then we stay insulated from the reality of oppression and our part in it. The power of art is that it can force us to see a reality we would rather ignore.

      It would be interesting to see what the impact would be if all grocery stores had murals that reflected the reality of how produce makes it to the market with a corresponding chart of wages and descriptions of the living conditions of those who do the work so we can have “affordable” food.

      I appreciate your comments that invite us to think in deeper ways about this issue.

      Diane



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