COUNTERPOINT: New campus mural produces unnecessary racial divisions

Shauli Bar-On | Daily Trojan

The USC Annenberg Institute for Diversity and Empowerment in conjunction with the art collective When Woman Disrupt installed a controversial mural on March 22.

The sentence “Dismantle Whiteness and Misogyny on this Campus” is painted on the ceiling above it. The word “whiteness” is a poor choice for this mural, and the artwork’s purpose loses its impact because of its sweeping hostility.

To be clear, I believe dismantling misogyny and racism are in the best interest of the University and society in general. However, by using the word “whiteness” instead of “racism,” “prejudice,” “bigotry,” “intolerance” or countless other options, the mural fails to draw the empathy and attention of the very people it should be targeting.

IDEA Co-Director Alison Trope reached out to the group When Woman Disrupt to paint and install the mural, and told the Daily Trojan that “whiteness” is being misinterpreted to mean “white people,” when in fact it is being used to connote broader systems, not individual people.

And yet, by dictionary definition, “whiteness” means exactly what the mural’s critics believe it does: the quality or state of being white.

The notion that “whiteness” refers to a broader and more complex idea is not recognized by most. That does not necessarily mean the mural’s artists did not have positive intentions, or weren’t referring to “whiteness” as an overarching system of oppression. But if that is the case, then there is a fundamental problem with this ideology: Why try to inspire change with implications and connotations rather than with a direct and straightforward message? 

It would make much more sense not to allude to or connote this more complex “system,”  “culture” or “climate” that Trope mentioned in her interview with the Daily Trojan, but rather, to be forthright and say this directly in the message.

It’s hard to argue pale skin is what causes superiority and inferiority in American society. Trope acknowledges that not all white people are racist. But by explicitly calling for the dismantling of “whiteness,” the mural comes off as attacking white skin color.

And despite the mural and its label not intending to attack white people for the color of their skin, the word “whiteness” repels certain white students from taking its message of tolerance to heart. Few disagree with the belief that misogyny and racism are aspects of our culture that should be eliminated. This message is not meant to divide the University, but seemingly — because of its choice of a single word — it has.

Di Wu | Daily Trojan

The faculty response to the outcry and criticism from conservative media outlets has been the continuous assertion that the artwork is meant to spark conversation. But according to Annenberg Media, faculty decided to take down a poster put up next to the mural that read, “White Male Privilege is a Myth.” If the true intention is to initiate conversation, then USC should have allowed this poster to stay up alongside the mural regardless of whether or not the faculty agree with its message. It appears as if the mural is meant to initiate a one-way message and recognize its affirmers rather than a spark a two-way dialogue with its dissidents.

That said, it is futile to make personal attacks on the students or faculty members who chose the word “whiteness” for the mural’s label. I don’t believe they had bad intentions or are out to get white students at USC. After all, the mural’s intention is to initiate conversation and get students to begin thinking about issues such as racism, and this is exactly what is happening, as demonstrated with this week’s “Point/Counterpoint” topic.

I hope those who selected the word “whiteness” understand how their mural could be interpreted to mean something negative and unintended, and subsequently join the conversation and debate around the mural.

“We understand that there may be those who disagree with the statement offered by the artists,” the Office of the Dean said in a statement to Fox News. “However, we firmly believe that civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas around sensitive topics are critical to the resolution of differences and to addressing issues facing our community and society as a whole.”

While the University senior administration should not force IDEA to remove or alter the word “whiteness,” it would benefit both sides of the controversy if the mural’s installers made an effort to change the word to something more direct and consistent with the message they intend to spread. 

Shauli Bar-On is a freshman majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.

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