Three years ago, University of Colorado archivist David Hays set out to create a not-so-stereotypical historical exhibit. But his in-your-face history lesson has been thrown back at him.
Hays is the researcher behind a traveling exhibit entitled Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes: Fear and Fascination. It's a collection of advertisements, drawings and political cartoons from the dark side of Americana--many of them starkly racist blackface figures, war posters about the Japanese "yellow peril," and gross caricatures of Jews, Irish and other ethnic groups.
The exhibit, which includes commentary by CU faculty members and evaluation forms to be filled out by viewers, is intended to show what racial and ethnic stereotypes really look like. But apparently some people don't want to look.
After two years of wandering through libraries and various other Front Range locales, the exhibit landed at Lowry Air Force Base during the first week of June. Within a week, however, it was abruptly removed after objections by Lowry employees. It was the first time Hays's exhibit had been censored. The impetus behind the cancellation came from Local 2040 of the American Federation of Government Employees, whose president, Marilyn Hicks, says, "I don't know exactly what was objected to. All I know is that it was found offensive by all employees--black, white, everybody."
Exactly who was responsible for taking down the exhibit isn't clear. It had been selected to be displayed as part of a cultural celebration held in Lowry's Gilchrist Building, which houses the Air Force Air Reserve Training Center and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, both of which have civilian union employees.
"We put it up in conjunction with Asian Pacific Observance Month," says Gilda Price, exhibit chairwoman for the celebration. "We didn't know specifically what would appear in the exhibit."
Price says she was told by the accounting service's Equal Employment Opportunity manager, Ann Flores, that "there were individuals who were offended by what the exhibit had said." She also was told by the EEO manager that the exhibit's evaluation cards were considered an illegal survey under union regulations.
Flores refers all questions to Linda Winkler, director of public affairs for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, who says she knows nothing about any complaints received about the exhibit or the removal of the surveys. Winkler insists the exhibit was taken down only because the union complained about the survey cards and because proper clearances to show the material hadn't been obtained. "If they had gone through the right procedures," she says, "they wouldn't have had the problem to begin with."
But Price says that when she brought up the idea before the Asian Pacific Council Committee, which set up the month-long celebration, no objections were raised. An EEO representative at the meeting also voiced no objections to the exhibit at the time, Price says.
Union president Hicks made no bones about her feelings. Asked if she found it personally offensive, she replies, "I said all employees found it offensive. I am an employee here." Specifically, she says, she objected to "the entire exhibit."
But Hicks contends that "the union didn't take down the exhibit. The EEO committee is the one who took it down." As for the flap over the exhibit's evaluation cards, she says, "The federal law says any survey that is conducted must come through the union. This did not come through the union."
When Price later requested that the exhibit be put back up, Hays refused, fearing someone would destroy it. Asked if she thought that could have happened, Price says, "The possibility is there."
Hays sounds philosophical about what happened. "In this particular case, this was the first noneducational facility where it was shown," he says. "And what I've learned is, every time it's shown, you get a new lesson.
"I think they have the right to take down the display. I don't want to violate union regulations. I don't resent it, but it came as a rather rude surprise."
He says he was told by Flores that "most of the people who complained were union members of color. She told me they wanted a display that was more `balanced,' although I don't know how you could do that."
He conceived the exhibit after criticism that a World War II fiftieth-anniversary commemorative display he put together was "Japanese-bashing" because it displayed the wartime media images of the Japanese, such as the newspaper headline word "Japs."
Hays says he wanted to create an exhibit that would respond to minorities who were upset with the American historical portrayal of the Japanese.
"We can't be in the position of selecting our own history," says Hays. "I wanted to respond to that mentality. My reaction was, `I'll really show you what stereotypes are.'"
Using photocopied imagery from newspapers, magazines, advertisements and various other places, Hays's twenty framed displays march out images of various ethnic groups, from nineteenth-century caricatures of African-Americans to the modern day "Aunt Jemima" pancake box, from the turn-of-the-century drunken Irishman to the modern-day logo of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, which is arguably less than flattering. Among the other depictions are a caricature of a greedy, miserly Jew with a dollar sign floating out of his cigar smoke and material depicting Native Americans as savages. Similar portrayals of Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Latin Americans and Italians fill the exhibit.
Although the Lowry incident was the first time the exhibit had been removed, it's not the first time it's received criticism. In fact, based on more than 200 viewer responses received when the exhibit was displayed at Norlin Library on the University of Colorado campus, the exhibit received about a 25- to 28-percent negative rating, says Hays.
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"From the left, liberal, among whites, they feel this is too negative and say `We don't need to see these images anymore, it's dead,'" he says. "A lot feel the battle's been fought and won. Among people of color, they feel it's reviving very negative memories. They feel, `We can't have this.' People bypass the captions [explaining the exhibit] and think we're insulting them."
The exhibit has produced strong reactions elsewhere as well. "It seemed as if the responses were polarized," says Bruce Caughey, the communications coordinator for the Douglas County School District, which co-sponsored the exhibit to appear at two Castle Rock sites in April. "Many felt it was very effective, interesting. Others didn't agree with it at all. They felt the exhibit was focusing on an issue that they didn't need to focus on."
Hays, who works in CU's Special Collections at Norlin Library, insists that his exhibit is not intended to scold viewers for racial stereotyping, but rather to exhibit patterns of imagery.
"I feel, as a Sixties liberal, some of these lessons need to be passed on," he says. "Today, there is no historical sensibility. People want to live for now. I didn't go into this thinking any stereotype would be ended. I'm not foolish enough to believe this. All I can do is put it in a context out there so someone will see it.