Molly DeVore/The Badger Herald

What contemporary whitewashing says about us and our future

Why the rewriting of history matters, and what we should do about it

· Oct 1, 2019 Tweet

In every student or former student’s mind, there exists that universally vilified person who claimed or was given credit for a group project in which they did next to nothing. And if you’re not aware of such a person — well, I have news for you.

But to our collective chagrin, it would appear that this phenomenon does not die with those group projects. It exists well beyond their bounds, and it is flourishing in political and activist spaces.

Recent weeks have proven to be cornerstone moments for some of the most high-profile movements of our time — namely, that of the fight against climate change and the impeachment proceedings of President Donald Trump.

From the outset, both movements have been led by people of color. But now, as both have become more intense and widely watched, this history is actively being whitewashed — its leaders being replaced or overshadowed by figures perhaps more palatable to American media and more aligned with its dominant narratives.

Climate activism both at home and abroad has been led by the same people who are most likely to be affected by its implications — people of color, oftentimes from low-income communities. To name a few of those leaders: Maria Eva Conoé, a Brazilian indigenous woman who has led the fight to protect the Amazon from that country’s far-right president; Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe-kwe youth activist who addressed the United Nations at age 13 and was recently nominated for an International Children’s Peace Prize; and Mari Copeny, a young black activist who has drawn national attention to the Flint water crisis. 

But it was Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish activist, who was given the starring role in the recent climate marches around the world.

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Now, to be clear, Thunberg is owed a great deal of credit for the movement that she helped build. This is not an indictment of Thunberg or a suggestion that she has somehow maliciously stolen the moment from other activists for herself or her benefit. She is a brave and inspiring young leader who should be celebrated for the work she’s doing. 

But the reality is we all know Thunberg’s name, or have seen her face come across our social media feeds or onto our television screens. Can we honestly say the same for those aforementioned activists of color, who have been doing the same work and who helped build this movement from the ground up? 

In our nation’s capital and its halls of power, the story is not much different. In the movement to impeach Donald Trump, it was primarily people of color who spoke early and often about the necessity of such proceedings. 

“This is an indictment of the way that attention and credit flow in this country — which is almost always in ways that are validating to and conformant with white America.”

Reps. Al Green, D-Texas, and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., along with “the squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — have been some of the most ardent and vocal advocates of impeachment from the beginning. And they’re all people of color.

But with the recent announcement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the House would be opening an official impeachment inquiry, the news media is starting to paint a very different picture of the movement for impeachment and the leaders who got us here.

As a glaring example of whitewashing at work, CNN recently labeled five freshman members of Congress as “unlikely leaders on impeachment.” 

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They’re all white women, and, by any metric, they are not leaders on impeachment. All five of them announced their support for such proceedings as recently as last week, joining dozens of other House Democrats who had already announced their support after months of actively resisting mounting pressure.

And it doesn’t stop there. In a segment on his show, CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. — one of those “unlikely leaders on impeachment” profiled in the aforementioned piece — if people like Tlaib and Green, people of color who have advocated for impeachment from the beginning, “diminish the seriousness” of such proceedings. 

Again, just as with Thunberg, this is not necessarily an indictment of those five congresswomen CNN profiled (though agreeing to partake in a story that falsely labels you a leader of a movement you took no part in leading can be fairly criticized). Rather, this is an indictment of the way attention and credit flow in this country — which is almost always in ways that are validating to and conformant with white America.

To be clear, there is no single person responsible for any of history’s great activist movements or political moments — they are and always have been the result of a multitude of voices coming together to support a common cause. And that’s how these moments must be read, if they are to have lasting historical significance.

But it matters that the leaders of these movements are being whitewashed and overlooked. History is full of disgraceful examples of such forces at work, and it should give us all pause to recognize that it is still happening here and now, despite all the increased importance and effort media organizations have claimed to place on diversity and the uplifting of marginalized voices.

Ultimately, stories like these are important because they expand beyond simply how the leaders of these movements have been defined and identified. Rather, they hit at a broader problem in our political and activist spaces — a problem which places the crux of a movement’s success or of an election’s outcome on the shoulders of white people, after people of color have laid the groundwork and supplied necessary, consistent support.

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Such a setup perpetuates a cultural framework that centers whiteness and marginalizes everything else. Thus there are the stories about how we should feel bad for and attempt to justify the overwhelmingly pro-Trump vote of white families in post-industrial and rural America, about how white suburban voters are the only demographic that matters in winning key battleground states, about how white women in pink hats are leading the Women’s March and “The Resistance.”

A commitment to fostering diversity in our communities has been established, at least officially and in most places. But the work to ensure such diversity requires now what it has always required — an active, intentioned, and continual effort to make space for it.

“De-centering whiteness simply must fall on the shoulders of those at the center, not those attempting to move the frame and widen the view.”

For white people, especially in activist and political spaces, that means taking a step back and recognizing our faces and our voices should not always — indeed, should often not — be the ones leading the charge. De-centering whiteness simply must fall on the shoulders of those at the center, not those attempting to move the frame and widen the view.

For those of us who work in media, we must take that same active, intentioned, continual approach to our reporting — something which requires that we ask some tough questions of ourselves and our colleagues, and that we become critical of ourselves and our industry.

Ultimately, all of this involves a critical and necessarily uncomfortable self-reflection for white people. But the end result holds the promise for a new historical narrative — one that not only accurately recognizes the leaders of these activist and political movements, but that also encourages a more reflective swath of this country to helm the ones that will lead us forward.

To give credit where credit is due is a foundational lesson, one that we have all likely learned the hard way from those school group projects mentioned earlier. So when the stakes are as high as the rewriting of history, it would appear to be incumbent upon us to apply that lesson — to correct the narrative and ensure that the future is a place where sympathy and credit flow to people and places that have been historically shut out.

Matt O’Connor ([email protected]) is a senior studying political science and journalism. 

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