Like many cities in the US, San Francisco is experiencing a wave of gentrification that some residents welcome and others deride. Often central to the debate is the Mission District, an eclectic enclave whose formerly large working- and middle-class Latino population moves further south as the gentrifiers roll in by the dozens: well-paid, largely young, white, male, and employed by tech companies. Their presence brings with it priced-out renters, long waits and lines at a growing number of trendy restaurants and cafes, and a fear of cultural and historical erasure.
The Mission’s Latino and Chicano influence is visible in the bright and elaborate murals that decorate the alleys for several blocks, tucked between the streets in a less polished section of the neighborhood. Inspired by the work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the Chicano Mural Movement of the ’60s and 70s, some of the artwork reflects reactions to social and political changes. Other pieces illustrate life in the Mission in the midst of the City’s growing pains.
A few weeks ago, I toured the murals with my younger sister, who was visiting from Texas. We picked up a map at Precita Eyes, a community mural center and headed for Balmy Alley, which boasts one of the largest collection of murals among the alleys.
We lingered in front of this mural. Almost every inch of paint seems to hold meaning.
We spent a bit more time with this one, as well.
A few more murals that stood out to me.
This is by no means all there is to see of San Francisco street art. You could easily spend 3-4 hours touring the alleys across the city, absorbing the messages in the work. If you ever get the chance, I recommend checking them out! Keeping it real though: it’s probably better to plan your visit for the daylight hours.
What symbolism / meaning do you see in the murals?
Earlier this year I was lounging at Starbuck’s with my friend V, who is Chinese-American. A friend of hers, also Chinese-American, was getting married to a half-white/half Japanese-American man.
She told me, with some sheepishness, “You’re going to kill me, but I bought a card for ___ and ____ with white people on it.”
“Why would I kill you? It’s not like I’m some militant “black power” chick. ‘You must only buy cards with people of color on them!'”
She chuckled and nodded.
“But, let me ask you this,” I continued, “would you give one of your white friends a wedding card with a happy Asian couple depicted?”
She thought for a beat and answered, “No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“That’s all I’m saying. You can do what you want. But, if you would think twice about giving your white friend a card with a non-white person on it, why wouldn’t you think twice about the reverse?”
The answer is pretty simple. In our country, the dominant culture is white, of European ancestry. White is considered “normal” or the “default.” To not be white is to be different, other, a minority.
When The Hunger Games movie was released last year, a subset of moviegoers were less than thrilled to discover that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were played by black actors. One particularly warm-hearted malcontent tweeted, “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
Well, damn. To me, that comment suggests that this person doesn’t see a black life as valuable as a white life. Seems pretty racist to me.
As Anna Holmes rightly identified, in her article in The New Yorker on the “The Hunger Games” tweets, “…the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise.” Again, white is the default. Some people assumed Rue and Thresh were white. It should be noted, as people who read the books (including me) pointed out, the young adult novel explicitly mentions Rue “has dark brown skin and eyes” and Thresh has “the same dark skin as Rue.” Why shouldn’t there be black characters in The Hunger Games (or Asians or Latinos)? We exist too and we should also be represented, and not superfluously to fill an invisible quota or to simply play the sidekick propping up the white hero. Also notable about the book, is the fact that Rue and Thresh’s skin color was explicitly mentioned. Often when characters are white, their color isn’t addressed. It’s often only when a character is a person of color or otherwise “different” that their ethnicity or race is explicitly stated.
Many of my friends have heard me rant about the fashion industry’s use of the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors. Those colors are basically tan or beige, maybe peach. When I look at my flesh, it’s brown and decidedly not tan. When I am nude, I am still brown, not beige. Those color terms, as innocuous as they may seem, represent just a slice of how pervasive the dominant culture is in our country. “Nude” and “flesh” are normal. If I want an article of clothing or an undergarment that closely matches my skin tone, the color won’t be called “nude”, it’ll be “chocolate” or “deep brown” (and likely there will only be one dark shade, but many more lighter shades).
Concerning oneself with the lack of ethnic diversity in greeting cards, or taking umbrage at the terms used to describe colors in fashion may seem trivial to some. I very much disagree. It’s all too easy to internalize the idea that you are somehow inferior to the majority or the dominant culture, when you don’t readily see representations of people who look like you. When people who look like you are considered abnormal – outside of the norm.
I cannot count the number of friends of color who have shared with me stories of “the time they wanted to be white.” Their reasons varied from they “wanted to be like everyone else,” to they “wanted their family to be like the white families they saw on TV.” More harmfully, however, there were expressions of the desire to be more “conventionally attractive.” There were fears their nose was too wide, face too flat, butt too protruding, hair too nappy, skin too dark, eyes not large enough and so on. We, the “different ones”, should not have to live in a society where we feel excluded or somehow less than. The prevailing standard of beauty in this country is a European standard of beauty that more often than not, doesn’t include people of color. Yes, there are exceptions, exceptions some are all too quick to name when they want to avoid acknowledging potentially discomforting realities. However, these exceptions prove there’s an issue.
The famous “doll experiment” from the early 20th century aptly demonstrated the internalization and implicit acceptance of a white standard of beauty. A group of black children were given two dolls: one brown with dark hair and one white with blonde hair. They were asked questions such as which doll they’d prefer to play with, which was nicer, which doll had a nice color. The kids showed a clear preference for the white dolls. When the study was repeated in the 21st century, obviously with a different set of children, the results were sadly, quite similar.
I remember being told once as a kid, by a black female relative, “Don’t stay out in the sun too long; you’ll get too dark!” The subtext of that warning was, of course, that being “too dark” would make me less attractive. Internalized racism is real.
I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. I want to be equal. I should be able to feel good about the body I was born into. I deserve to feel good about the body I was born into. It’s real work to feel secure in a society that tells you that you aren’t normal. As much as I’ve built up my self-esteem, I still find traces of that internalized racism lurking down deep from time to time. It horrifies and disgusts me. Even a black woman, who is aware these issues exist, I am not impervious to their power.
It’s not just about a card (or a doll, or birthday decorations, or “nude and “flesh” colors) to me. It’s so much more.
The idea that we’re living in a “post-racial nation” is a bad, bad joke. We are still not equal. As long as these minor, but cumulative signs and symbols of racial power and subversion continue to exist, we are not and will not be equal. In the same way that women fought and continue to fight for equality, including challenging existing male-centered, patriarchal language, we have to do the same for people of color. This is a call to everyone to examine the ways in which our society still doesn’t acknowledge and include all of its citizens and work to change it.
You can find greeting cards for purchase online that encompass diversity. However, it would be nice to be able to walk into a standard drugstore or greeting card store and have a varied, diverse set of greeting cards to choose from. There areSpanish-language greeting cards. Further, Hallmark has a separate line of greeting cards specifically for African-Americans. This is progress. However, these “speciality lines” are segregated in store displays. There are the “normal” cards with images of inanimate objects and / or white people and then there are the “other cards.” Segregation, even among greeting card displays, doesn’t demonstrate inclusion. It should be considered “normal” to have diverse sets of people represented on greeting cards, whether those people are black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-racial, gay, disabled, etc. The faces of Americans are ever-changing and our societal artifacts should reflect as much.
A few days after our greeting card conversation, V and I visited Papyrus. V wanted to find a more suitable card for her friends. I’d picked up some Christmas cards there, one batch of which featured a tall, thin, brown-skinned woman, with long-flowing hair in a fashionable outfit. She didn’t look anything like me other than the brown skin, but it was a close enough representation for my satisfaction. We weren’t able to find a card representative of her friends, unfortunately, so she ended up purchasing a card without people on the front flap. Problem solved…for now.
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.