‘Racist’ murals won’t warp children’s minds

Tiffany Jenkins

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In these strange times, certain events in real life now take on a dreamlike quality. One such example is a police investigation into a so-called ‘racist’ mural at Wardie Primary School in Edinburgh.

The artwork is in the assembly hall. It is based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, dates from 1936, and was recently restored with the help of lottery funding. It is charming, with a 1930s feel to it, is historically significant, and thoroughly deserved restoration. The school is lucky to have it. It significantly improves the space.

The mural also happens to feature a ‘golliwog’ sitting up on a shelf above Alice and the White Rabbit. One visiting mother, who doesn’t send her child to the school yet, complained that the mural is racist. And a pantomime of offence-taking and risk-avoidance has ensued.

Police Scotland has confirmed that it received a complaint, adding: ‘Officers are now liaising with Edinburgh City Council education department with regards to this matter.

‘Police Scotland treats all reports relating to hate incidents extremely seriously and will thoroughly investigate whenever a report of this nature is made.’

A spokesman for Edinburgh City Council said it understood the image could be offensive, but said it did not reflect the attitudes of the school. He added: ‘Our equalities policies and approaches are robustly multi-cultural and anti-racist, promoting diversity and good relationships among pupils.’

This defensiveness is unnecessary and will have negative consequences. The image is quite innocent. Yes, it is unusual to see, and was the product of different attitudes in a different time, but we are all – children included – quite capable of working out that images have different meanings in different historical contexts. The alternative is to freak out, get the police in (who are, of course, well known for their race-relations expertise) to inspect every book or picture in every school, and paint over or destroy anything deemed suspect.

Reacting in this way sends a message to adults and children that they are helpless before supposedly offensive images. And, in addition to it being a tremendous waste of police, council and school time, the case of the racist mural lets everyone else know that one complaint of offence can have a significant effect.

There is a fear at work here: a fear that we or our children will see a golliwog and morph into a member of the National Front. It also highlights the arrogance of habitual offence-seekers, who suggest they know what is appropriate and what isn’t and use the accusation of racism as a weapon to get their own way. In the course of doing so, they detract from the simple pleasure of appreciating a newly restored mural.

Everyone should calm down. Let’s hold our nerve on the mural. Otherwise, we will never wake up from what is turning into a nightmare.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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