A Picture’s Thousand Words: Whitewashing Our Culture

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I recently saw a photograph whose context spoke volumes.

A little over a week ago, Donald Trump issued an Executive Order regarding the entry of non-citizens from seven countries. Even long-term residents holding green cards were at risk of being detained at the border.

In one particularly emotional example, a five-year-old boy who is a US citizen of Iranian descent was detained at Dulles airport for several hours, separated from his parents. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the action because it would be “misguided and wrong” to assume a child that young can’t be a threat.

A photograph began circulating social media that purported to be of five-year-old Artiman Jalali, with his arms pinned behind his back and held in place with cuffs around his upper arms. An officer stands over him, looking into his face.

The problem: While the story and photo are both legitimate, the photo doesn’t go with the story.

The photograph is of “Tom,” an eight-year-old with ADHD who was being detained at his school by the campus police officer. The accompanying cell phone video was released in 2015 by the ACLU.

As a teacher, I recognized it immediately and was confused. People were quick to be outraged when they thought the boy in the photograph was a victim of overzealous implementation of Trump’s executive order. I was frustrated and dismayed that the story hadn’t gotten the same level of outrage a year and a half ago when it was a child being abused for having an ADHD-related emotional outburst.

As I reflected further, I realized that there were several underlying issues.

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Question 1. Why did people seem to care more about the photo when they thought it was Artiman Jalali?

Teachers have been trying to rally support for the cause of the decay of the public education system for years now. The sight of an eight-year-old being held in handcuffs around his biceps ought to raise questions in viewers of conscience.

I understand the need for appropriate security on public school campuses. However, as much as police need to be cautious not to abuse their power on the street, this is even truer in schools, where the population is younger, more vulnerable, and more likely to act impulsively. That there are police officers (not security guards) in elementary schools should be a topic of open discussion in our society, not something to shrug off.

When I pointed out the source of the photo to people on social media, they did indeed express outrage. However, this is an easy time to stir concern about public education, as the Senate is nearly deadlocked in deciding whether to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

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Question 2. Why are people concerned about education now that DeVos is in the news, while there wasn’t that urgency two years ago?

DeVos is a champion of charter schooling and of using public money for private schools and is widely disliked by teachers and teacher unions.

However, DeVos is not an isolated example; she is a symptom of a troubled public education system. Education is in a state of near-constant reform, and as a result, incidents like the one in the photo, where a special needs child is being berated by an overzealous officer, tend to slip through the cracks.

This is not a partisan issue, either. An extremely flawed implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Obama’s “Race to the Top” have been as damaging as Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.”

In a way, it’s a good thing that the detention of Jalali at Dulles has brought this story back into the media, because it didn’t get sufficient attention the first time. If the story shocks you, be aware: It’s par for the course in far too many schools around the country.

When teachers call out to you for support, please, try to educate yourself. Our system is in trouble.

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Question 3. Why does a white eight-year-old getting handcuffed get more attention than black children getting similar or worse treatment?

When I was researching this story, I found a related story about another ACLU lawsuit and another handcuffed 7-year-old. The suit was filed last year over incidents that happened in 2014. This time, the boy is black. I hadn’t heard about this story, not the way I’d heard about “Tom.”

Certainly, the presence of video makes stories more compelling. A 2015 incident involving a guard overturning a desk while a girl is seated in it got some attention. But video is not a guarantee of appropriate attention: Last month there was a quieter story involving a girl getting bodyslammed to the ground by a guard, while in 2014, white male author Mitch Albom praised a black teacher for hitting fighting students with a broom, despite video showing that the teacher was slow to try to de-escalate the fight and the broom was ineffective.

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Question 4. Why would people share a photograph of a white boy of European ancestry, when the boy in question is Iranian-American?

I am disappointed in myself that this was the last question I asked myself when reflecting on the story. Jalali has Middle Eastern features.

It’s true that “Tom”’s face is not visible, so he could be of Middle Eastern descent. Jalali’s skin is a similar tone. The issue is not that people accepted that “Tom” could be Jalali. The issue is that there was a photo that was released, of Jalali being hugged by his mother, and that wasn’t being circulated as widely (at least, not in my corner of the Social Media world).

Granted, the photo of “Tom” was more emotional because it showed handcuffs. However, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons that the photo of Jalali being hugged was not as stirring for many viewers was because of his features. Covert, quiet, subconscious racism is still racism.

The photo of “Tom” in handcuffs presented as the boy in Dulles stirs the right mix of white liberal sympathies: He’s a victim of Trump’s bigoted othering, not the victim of our bipartisan assaults on how children are treated in publicly funded schools, and so empathizing with him is safe. It doesn’t require us to challenge our own degree of complicity in his assault. At the same time, though, he looks more like “us” than Jalali does, so he is a more acceptable target for empathy.

This is not meant as an attack but as a reminder of the degree to which our white privilege dictates our emotional responses. Let us continue to work to overcome these impulses.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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