Deaf Youth USA- Bay Area chapter released a public letter and petition to the California School for the Deaf, Fremont and wider Bay Area Deaf communities following an announcement about three new brands that CSD superintendent, Sean Virnig developed in collaboration with Convo Relay. The three brands were modeled after a statue that is placed at the front of the school’s campus, “The Bear Hunt,” created by Douglas Tilden, a deaf, white male artist in 1892. (Recent historical studies also suggest that Tilden was additionally gay.) The three brands focused on an aspect of the statue wherein the bear is biting into a Native American man’s flesh as they are in the midst of violent struggle. The brands aligned with the history of reducing Native cultures to “logos” and “mascots.” Protests –via social media and direct contact with CSD administrators –against the three brands ensued. Two days later, follow-up vlog was released, with Virnig announcing that the three brands had been eliminated.
DYUSA-Bay Area went on to collaborate and examine an important question: “If the brands were wrong, how is the statue okay?” After intense group dialogue, the organization went on to develop the public letter and petition that was released to the public several weeks after.
Not even one week after DYUSA-Bay Area’s letter and petition’s released, intense community responses surfaced, and a petition was made to counter DYUSA-Bay Area’s call to remove the statue from campus grounds. Largely, the responses decrying DYUSA-Bay Area’s behest to remove the statue are centered on instantaneous and firm denial of racist meanings within the artwork. Many responses include appalled reactions that a beautiful piece of art is racist, that anything created by a Deaf man, (regardless of having been white and having lived during an era where race science and typologies were on the rise, influencing how people who strayed from the Anglo-American ideal were classified and perceived) could be a racist product. The reactions and ensuing discussions have shifted from the question of where the statue should be situated to the state of racism within the Deaf community.
But why are so many in the Deaf community (a cultural-linguistic minority group that is diverse in itself) adamantly against an examination of a system of oppression? Why are so many against an examination of how this system influenced the artistic product itself and an institution’s positioning of the product? For many of us DPOC (Deaf People of Color) and our white Deaf allies, the resistance to authentic and honest discussion about racism in our community is disturbing at the very least.
The resistance, sadly, very much continues. But many of us are continuing with a counter-resistance. During a Facebook thread about white anti-racist Tara Holcomb’s vlog*, Brandon Williams drafted a response to those who resisted examination of the statue’s racist meanings:
I just find it so disturbing that Tara [Holcomb] and several others have given profound evidence as to why something is wrong with this statue. People say they want a dialogue, what do you think is going on now in this public forum? People say “we want proof!” we’ve shared numerous articles directly from countless Native Americans who have grown tired of people exploiting them using imagery, art, and so forth. We have even had Deaf Native Americans share their thoughts on why they are against this statue. How can ANY of you, that want the statue to stay where it is, say that you embrace diversity when you don’t even listen? How can any of you say that when you continuously insult POC’s intelligence? When you doubt our knowledge of an experience we share EVERY DAY.
This issue wasn’t just made up. It wasn’t brought up to cause a stir. It wasn’t brought up to make us look good. This came from a profound and conscious experience. It came from open and honest dialogue dealing with something very real. It came from self-analysis and self-education. It came from the heart. It came from us POC and our allies.
It feels like so many of you are coming up with every excuse possible as to why this statue should stay-you grew up at the school, you didn’t interpret that way, “Tilden was Deaf!” “Tilden was Gay!” “Oh, they are just looking for attention,” “they hate white people,” “they need to focus on other issues,” “art is subject to interpretation”- so many utterly dismissive comments. Many of you have minimized so many POC’s experiences in the process. You can’t see through your bigoted emotions and excuses.
No one has said that Tilden was intending to be racist nor was that the meaning behind the statue. The entire point of all of this is that POC are tired of our respective cultures being exploited to make a profit or to showcase another meaning. Our respective cultures are to valuable to us to allow anyone to do that. Tilden’s intentions of making this statue was not to showcase Native American culture, but to give another meaning that has absolutely nothing to do with the culture itself. Stop trying to figure out if it was for the rivalry, for survival, for nature, for protectiveness. Did it have anything to do with Native Americans and their culture?? No.
The problem therein was that a systematically privileged white man made the statue including a member of a marginalized culture that he was not a part of, and showcased a meaning that had nothing to do with the culture itself.
There would not have been any complaints whatsoever if he made a statue to showcase a REAL aspect of the Native American experience, intended the meaning behind the statue to be the former, and received PERMISSION and gave full CREDIT to Native Americans for his artwork.
Case in point, George Lucas, who directed and produced the movie ‘Red Tails’ about the black Tuskegee airman, who were the first African-American aviators to be in the military during WWII. He had an all black cast to act as the airman and he didn’t mess up the story. He gave credit where credit was due and that is to the actual Tuskegee airman, because without them and their experiences, he would not have been able to create that story, not even with all of his creative ability.
Please think about that. We didn’t like the “Dirty Signs” lady misrepresenting our culture. We didn’t like the fact that the producers of the Matt Hamill movie tried to get a hearing man to play the role of Hamill himself. We don’t like people exploiting our culture and turning it into something it isn’t. Well, POC, and all other marginalized communities don’t like it either. Wake up people, listen, and open your minds and your hearts. There is no way that we, as Deaf people, can ever work together if we don’t recognize the people of privilege-white, male, straight, able-bodied, educated, upper class and others- within our community and hold them and ourselves accountable for our historical and current wrongdoings. If we don’t, we will remain divided even when we address an issue that impacts us all as Deaf people. The more we talk about and address our inter-community issues, the stronger we will be.
[Editor's Note: The above portion of this article was written by Elena Ruiz. The lower portion--the comment--was written by Brandon Williams. Brandon Williams is a native of Dallas, Texas. He is currently a student at Gallaudet University and is majoring in Social Work and English. He is influenced by the works of bell hooks, James Baldwin, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and countless others within the black community.
*Because Tara Holcomb's vlog appears on Facebook, and while the vlog appears to have been made open to the public, Deaf Echo is uncertain of the privacy issues involved with respect to those who commented on that vlog. Thus we are not linking to it here at this time. We do hope however to link to a Youtube copy of the vlog if one can be made available.]