Erasing Arizona: Dark-skinned Mural Faces Ordered "Lightened" to Appease Bigotry

is difficult to fully explain the impacts of Arizona's burgeoning and
anti-immigrant climate these days. To outsiders it must seem like either
inmates have finally taken over the asylum, or alternatively that
someone is
finally standing up to an inept federal government. To those of us
living here,
it further appears as either a formalized decree of misguided policies
have long been in place below the radar, or a chance to finally push a
agenda to its logical and necessary extreme on a statewide scale. While
all of
these sentiments possess a kernel of truth, more to the point is that
today has in many ways simply become a veritable theater of the absurd.

wit: legalizing racial profiling, banning ethnic studies, dismissing
with accents, lauding "ethnic cleansing" policies, militarizing the
seeking to abolish the 14th Amendment (the one that makes the
of rights applicable to the states and makes anyone born here a
citizen), and
more. Still, all of this pales (pun intended) to a recent localized
that speaks volumes to the climate of antipathy and purification being
plied here
in the desert. In a twisted feat of modernized and imposed "passing,"
in Prescott have been pressured to "lighten" the dark-skinned faces on a
public mural due to a backlash inspired by a city council member who
said that
he failed to see "anything that ties the community into that mural."

other words, the appearance of a brown-skinned face in the mural is not
reflective of the community - despite the fact that demographic data
indicates that
people of color comprise over 15% of the regional population, and that
Arizona as a whole this demographic represents an estimated one-third of
state's inhabitants. In fact, and as a partial explanation for the mural
a 2008
population trend study
commissioned by Yavapai College shows
that the percentage of nonwhite residents in the area has doubled in the
twenty years and is continuing to rise. Mirroring patterns seen
statewide, one
can sense the backlash from people attempting to maintain the "old
status quo of well-defined power and race relations in the face of rapid
as reflected in this

from Prescott City Councilman and local radio host Steve
Blair about the disputed mural:

"I am not a
individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of
mural, based upon who's president of the United States today and based
upon the
history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families -
who I
have been very good friends with for years - to depict the biggest
picture on
that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question,

As a
follow-up to these remarks expressing a not-uncommon view about turning
the clock to a time when there were far fewer people of color here,
Blair - who
has a history of "past incidents involving race," as noted in a local
-- went on to opine:

"I'm not a
racist by any
stretch of the imagination, but whenever people start talking about
it's a word I can't stand.... The focus doesn't need to be on what's
the focus doesn't need to be on the minority all the time.... Art is in
the eye
of the beholder, but I say (the Miller Valley mural) looks like graffiti
L.A..... I don't see anything that ties the community into that mural."

we rightly condemn such notions, it should be noted that Blair was
giving voice
to a point of view that has dominated the political discourse here for
generations. Indeed, R.E.
Wall, director of the Prescott Downtown Mural Project, reported that he
and the
other artists experienced weeks of "tense working conditions" at the
including regular racial slurs shouted from vehicles and passersby such
"You're desecrating our school," "Get the ni--ers off the
wall," and "Get the sp-c off the wall." The original
detailing the mural's completion drew a spate of vitriolic
racially-charged online comments that mirrored these verbal assaults. In
an interview with the
local newspaper, Wall
observed that "the pressure stayed up consistently. We had two months of
cars shouting at us." Eventually, he said, the demands reached such a
level that his group was asked by school officials to lighten the faces
of the
mural's main subject, as well as the other children in the mural.

message does this send to the school children (one of whom, in fact, was
model for the primary image that sparked the mural controversy) and
others in
the area with darker skin pigmentation? Just as depictions of emaciated
can encourage eating disorders and other dangerous practices in young
women, so
too can the impetus to "lighten" one's implicitly offensive and
unwelcomed skin
tone impact the mental and physical well-being of people of color. In
to reflecting the current mood in Arizona due to its incipient climate
legislated intolerance, all of this harks back to the unfortunate era of
"passing" by minorities in which whiteness was a desired norm that
individuals oftentimes attempted to achieve through both physiological
cultural affectations. In a modern version of this self-destructive
Chris Hedges cogently described
Michael Jackson as someone who "was so
consumed by self-loathing he carved his
African-American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask."

history of race in America is complex, brutal, and unfortunately
correlative of
forces that continue to drive much of our politics today. Before the
Civil Rights
era, socially-enforced binaries of "white" and "colored" tended to
dominate the
landscape, creating for some great comfort in knowing who was who, but
others creating great pressures to either conform or be relegated as
second-class. In recent years, the move toward a multicultural and
society has abated some of the rigidity of the past, allowing more
for self-definition and categorical mobility, but also contributing to a
backlash among certain sectors that evidently long for a return to those
simpler times when "white made right" and the rest of the herd knew its
in the pecking order.

recently spoke with Dr. Anita Fernandez, professor of education at
College and an expert on diversity, about these issues. She observed
that in
fact the mural was painted on "the
most racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically
diverse school" in the district, and further that "denying that children
color are representative of the school, and of our community, is based
on a
racist and intolerant ideology that is being fueled by Arizona's
and anti-Ethnic Studies laws." Further connecting the local controversy
Prescott to wider forces at work statewide, Fernandez continued:

'whitening' of children's
faces is paramount to erasing the existence of an ethnic group,
otherwise known
as ethnic cleansing. The reaction of some in our community, including
council member Steve Blair, demanding that the faces of the children of
be whitened is a testament to the fear of growing diversity in Arizona.
irony here is that recent legislation outlawing Ethnic Studies in public
schools perpetuates the ignorance of Arizona residents like those
fearful of a
mural depicting non-white children as representative of their
community. What we need is more education from multiple perspectives
infused into our public schools to prevent ignorant reactions such as

In this sense,
we can begin to
see Arizona's revanchist and reactionary laws and policies as creating a
self-fulfilling ethos of racism and intolerance. The more that racial
ethnic divisions are reinforced through policing patterns and
practices, the wider the rifts become. As demonstrated in apartheid
increasing gaps in political power and economic opportunity that are
with race-based laws wind up requiring more such laws as well as the
overt use
of force to maintain their utility over time. The result is a slippery
slope in
which the very thing that is most feared by those in power - namely an
empowered minority that undermines the existing social order -
inevitably comes
to pass as the dominant class overreaches in their attempt to "hold on"
winds up delegitimizing itself in the process. In the end, this is
a path to self-imposed oblivion, and Arizona's old guard may well be in
process of replicating it. Unfortunately, in this process, no one
prospers and the
resultant wounds can take generations to heal.

I have
previously contended that the political situation in Arizona raises the
of a "new
civil rights movement
" in America. But it isn't simply about
immigrants or people of Latino descent at this juncture - more broadly,
concerns the essential movement from a society of polarized binaries to
one of complex
complementarity. For all of its successes, the post-WWII Civil Rights
era did
not fully achieve this aim, and in fact even its more focused goal of
abolishing overt legal discrimination seems to have fallen short in
Modern movements around race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity,
example, generally are more deeply engaged with matters of alterity,
and representation. In other words, they are arguing not merely for
rights to participate in a flawed system, but more so for spaces in
which to
explore and expand the array of identity constructions that befit the
emerging world
in which we find ourselves.

ineluctable process is threatening for some, both in moral and
terms. While we can strive to empathize with this, we also need to
resist the
policies of retrenchment that are attempting to reinforce an outmoded
unjust order. Forcing the "lightening" of skin color on a public mural
is yet
another episode in the larger narrative unfolding here in Arizona.
Indeed, what
really needs more light cast upon it right now are these instances of
intolerance that seek to drive us all back into the darkness.

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