Whitewashed history marginalizes diversity

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

“O, let America be America again —

The land that never has been yet —

And yet must be — the land where every man is free.”

These words were written by one of the most influential poets and authors in American history, Langston Hughes. Hughes was not only brilliant and prolific, but also an advocate and a voice for equality during the civil rights era. He was not defined by the color of his skin, but his words changed the way people viewed an entire race. Hughes, along with so many other African-American inspirations, vocalized the need for recognition of African-American culture in the United States – and the need to avoid a whitewashing of historical events.

Whitewashing is the act of ignoring, rewriting or simply removing the existence of race or ethnic differences in history. Whether by expunging race from history books or by bending art to represent a less-than-historically-accurate rendition of an event or place, whitewashing is much more prevalent in world culture than many would care to admit. Whitewashing is like taking a bleach pen to a colored T-shirt and expecting nobody to notice the massive spot left behind.

Take, for instance, the whitewashing of characters in movies. In 2014, director Ridley Scott created a cheesy, action-filled version of the biblical tale of Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt. In an apparent lack of tact, Scott cast actor Christian Bale as Moses, an Egyptian man who, although portrayed in many artistic interpretations as white, most likely had a darker complexion. The fact that Scott willingly decided to cast a Welsh-English actor as a Middle Eastern man is just one impressively offensive example of how little color means to Hollywood directors.

Some may argue, as many others have for centuries, that artists have a license to portray their characters however they choose. Others claim that there is an increased sense of connectedness to art when the renditions of the subjects look more like the viewers of that art. Art history experts speculate that the use of white marble in the creation of ancient statues, such as in the sculptor Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s representation of “The Apollo of the Belvedere,” was more intentional than previously thought. Winckelmann was a Euro-centrist and intentionally re-created a bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo in white marble. This is now more widely recognized and accepted than the original bronze piece, and nobody can deny that Winckelmann’s purposeful choice of medium could impact people’s views of the god’s physical appearance.

Perhaps the most incredibly obvious misrepresentation in art is the imagery revolving around Jesus. Jesus was born in Israel, grew up in Egypt and also most likely had a dark skin. However, by doing a brief Google Images search, one can find thousands of renditions of Jesus, and in the majority of these, he is pale-skinned and light-eyed. Artists throughout the centuries have systematically rebranded Jesus to appeal to white, Anglo-Saxon people so they could “better relate” to the religion. While it seems to have had an effect on the popularity of the religion, it is not only historically inaccurate but it also perpetuates the loss of cultural identity.

Art is culture, and art has a great influence on how humans see the world around them. Education does as well, and education touches the lives of children and helps form their minds. Recently, McGraw Hill Publishing instigated a social media uproar after a Texas student found pointed out a “carefully worded” box on an educational map, which claimed that Americans brought “workers” to America from Africa to work on plantations. Now, any adult with internet access or accurate knowledge of U.S. history knows these “workers” were actually slaves, unpaid and dehumanized, and the plantations on which these slaves worked were barely humane at best. However, for a high school student, especially a student in a low-income area with limited educational resources and a small social sphere, this may not be as straightforward as it may seem.

Unfortunately, events in history are whitewashed much more than they should be. From the Native American massacres to systemic slavery and the cultural appropriation which still impacts society today, it seems like America, and in some cases the world, only wants to allow the white man’s view to be seen. Now this has changed substantially in the past few years, with the growth of movements such as Black Lives Matter and the continuation of support for cultural freedom, but America still has a long way to go. Whitewashing history is not only inaccurate, but it is harmful to society’s understanding of historical and cultural events. Every man is technically free, as Hughes dreamt of, but some still don’t understand why accurate representation and recognition of cultural identity is so important.