Prior to moving to Arizona, I worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in a Chicago area school system. At the time, the district was faced with the challenges of desegregating its schools. Significant disparity existed in school facilities and educational opportunities for minority students.
In the early 1970s, I vividly recall visiting a first grade class in my school district. That day, students were involved in an art project in which they were asked to draw a self-portrait using crayons. Every child picked up a beige colored crayon and placed it on the manila paper as they sought to finish a picture reflecting their physical appearance. Although every student in the class was black, not one student gave it any thought that the skin tone in their picture did not represent their identity. When I questioned one of the student’s about his crayon choice, his response was, "That’s the way the picture is supposed to be."
This experience in a small inner-city classroom was a metaphor, calling attention to the way in which minority students denied the reality of their own racial identity and demeaned themselves in the process. These students perceived of their identity in a way that they believed would validate their essence in a Caucasian world that was foreign to them. I often pondered, "How can you be comfortable within your own skin when you don’t know what color it is? What role-models in the media or historical leaders have these students been exposed to that would affirm their worth?"
Due to the civil rights protests of the 1960’s which led to the Civil Rights Act, this personal and cultural identity crisis eventually began shifting as we opened up our schools and other institutions to multicultural thinking and awareness. Not only did students begin to learn about the heroes of their culture and the history in struggles against oppression, but the media began to portray minorities in television and movie productions in a healthy, positive light. The Bill Cosby Show was an example of how the media served as a catalyst for many African-American families. There was a new voice of reason and civility that bolstered minorities with a new sense of cultural identity. It was a call for togetherness, not individuality.
Unfortunately, lurking behind this process in melding the melting pot was that beige colored crayon in the hands of reactionary whites, smoldering beneath the surface of our national conscience. The tipping point came with the election of an African-American president. Mr. Obama’s presidency illuminated and unleashed the hatred and racism that we thought was fixed, but merely had been sublimated. Not since the days of Selma and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have we witnessed such vitriolic energy being directed towards minorities.
In the state of Arizona, political leaders have launched an all-out campaign to racially profile and deny the rights of all citizens to be treated with dignity. The efforts of ethnic suppression, through bills such as SB 1070 and HB 2281 have been spearheaded by state legislator Russell Pearce, whose reactionary views have been associated with white supremacist groups. He has been relentless in his efforts to roll back civil rights progress in Arizona. Other politicians, such as governor Jan Brewer, Tom Horne and Republican state legislators such as John Huppenthal have followed suit.
In the continuing saga of racism in Arizona, an elementary school in Prescott developed a mural of a group of diverse students attending the school. The painters of the mural, who were commissioned by an environmentally friendly organization, were subject to harassment, intimidation and racial slurs as drive-by citizens watched them work. A member of the city council, Steve Blair, who also airs a radio show in Prescott, was disturbed because the mural depicted dark-skinned students. This was an affront to him because of his dislike of the President of the United States. In response, the principal of the school, Jeff Lane, decided to change the mural to reflect lighter skin tones. He justified the change in the interest of artistic quality. Mr. Lane then reversed his decision due to push-back from local citizens who were enraged by the "whitewashing" of the mural. The school is now moving forward with the original colors in the work.
Arizona is one of many states demanding the use of the beige crayon. White, reactionary racists are rising up in an effort to take their country back. Neo-Nazis are marching in the streets of Phoenix today. They feel welcomed here. For white Americans, it is the fear of loss of power and control that haunts. They view Mr. Obama as a black president, whose agenda is a threat to their personal and political survival. Thus, a world-view that is exclusive, rather than inclusive is embraced. An altered reality has been created that dismisses and alters significant aspects of our cultural heritage in which people took the hard road to find a place of freedom and equality. We must fight back against those who want to destroy this country because of their narrow, rigid, archaic racist ideology.
Many reactionary white Americans are on a course to thwart and cleanse every vestige of progress made by those who have or are currently struggling for human rights dignity. We cannot and will not let this happen. The voice of the ideology of the South has been unleashed again. If we thought it had succumbed to more rational thinking and discourse, we were mistaken. The same archaic mind-set, filled with venom and fear, under the guise of personal freedom and protection of state rights has made a comeback. We have a country filled with adults holding a beige crayon trying to whitewash America in order to take us back to the comfort of their racist ideology. Like the courageous citizens in Prescott, Arizona who protested the thinly veiled racism about a school mural, we must not discolor the beauty of diversity and squash those who would undermine anyone’s personal freedom and civil rights.
James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC, CCBT is an educator, writer, licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He specializes in treating anxiety and depressive disorders. He served as a teacher and guidance counselor for 30 years and has taught graduate-level counselor education courses for Chapman University. In 2005, he self-published Stepping Out of the Bubble: Reflections on the Pilgrimage of Counseling Therapy (Booklocker.com). His latest book, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life: Healing from the Battle Scars of Youth (New Horizon Press) is about the impact of troubled childhoods on adult functioning. James lives and is a practicing counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona.