Readers’ reaction to the vandalism of “Black Teen Wearing Hoodie” artworks in two Seattle neighborhoods further proves the need for self-reflection and honest dialogue about racial bias.
In last week’s column, I characterized the mutilation and tearing down of some of Jasmine Iona Brown’s “Black Teen Wearing Hoodie” street-art portraits, on Capitol Hill and in West Seattle, as racist.
Many Times commenters challenged that notion, pointing out that I offered no hard evidence to support my contention.
“Why would the automatic conclusion be racism?” one wrote. “Scary to think young people are taught that every obstacle they encounter is rooted in racism. They’ll never know the real world carrying that dead weight.”
Other commenters wondered whether the damaging and removal of the artworks, photographic decals that were fixed to the exterior surfaces of buildings and bridge pillars, was the random work of mindless individuals, not bigots.
“Most of our local vandals are hardly aware of what they’re doing at all,” a commenter wrote.
In that column, I said that art can force us to confront realities and feelings we wish not to acknowledge. Likewise, we come to discussions about suspected hate and bias incidents with our own internal thresholds for determining what qualifies as “racist.”
For Brown, the act of cutting off body parts on her life-size portraits and completely tearing them down, when all they’re meant to do is show African-American young people as nonthreatening, hit hard. It stung even more because the portraits are of her 14-year-old, African-American son Jaymin doing routine kid things like reading and playing musical instruments.
The Photographic Center Northwest on Capitol Hill has been admirably supportive of Brown. Executive Director Michelle Dunn Marsh organized a protest against the beheading of the “Black Teen Wearing Hoodie” portrait on the center’s facade in June by replacing it and inviting nearby Capitol Hill businesses and institutions to display replicas.
Vandals kept at it. Just over a week ago, someone tore down the center’s replacement.
“We all have to be conscious of making assumptions,” Dunn told me last week. “But I don’t believe the feeling is isolated — that this photographic image of a young African-American boy reading a book is intolerable to the extent that it should be ripped down.”
Dunn hopes the incidents inspire reflection and more transparent dialogue.
The vandals brought cutting tools and mischief to their acts of vandalism. What do people bring to the media’s coverage of those actions?
I haven’t been able to speak to the people who ruined Brown’s artworks. I don’t know what was in their hearts and minds when they did what they did. But I’m not inclined to believe that similar acts of vandalism in two different neighborhoods, over a span of months, was random. And obliviousness and carelessness are rarely good defenses against accusations of racism.
“In human rights law and anti-racism education, intentionality is irrelevant. It is the effect/impact of the action on the target person/group that is to be considered and takes precedence.” So says a handy guide for understanding and undoing racism produced by the Canada-based CARED Collective (Calgary Anti-Racism Education).
In any case, it takes a special kind of idiot to damage artworks featuring an African-American male that are clearly labeled “Black Teen Wearing Hoodie” with its obvious tie-in to the fatal 2013 shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin, and do to so in the Black Lives Matter era, which that shooting inspired, during a summer when flesh-and-blood African Americans have had the police called on them over highly suspicious acts like sitting at pools, selling bottled water, barbecuing and waiting in a Starbucks.
Racism isn’t “dead weight.” It’s a reality of life. In Seattle, reports of bias incidents of all kinds have jumped dramatically since 2012. As of July 1, just halfway through the year, the Seattle police had already logged 244 reports of bias crimes, more than the annual totals for 2012, 2013, 2014 or 2015. Race has been the biggest factor in these incidents.
What weighs us down is the continued disregard among too many of us for bigotry’s potential impact on those who are deliberately or inadvertently subjected to it.
Brown hasn’t raised a victim in her son. She’s raised a young man who can take the vandalism of his own image in stride.
I have to admit that I was at first taken aback by Jaymin’s nonchalance.
But then, battling racism and creating conscientious communities is mainly the job of us grown-ups.
I’m proud of Jaymin for brushing this foolishness off his shoulders.
I’m just as proud of Brown, Dunn and so many others for refusing to brush it off of theirs.