Why that WANTED poster was probably definitely a bad idea

My school doesn’t have fall sports, so we have Homecoming in January. We are a small school, so students in preschool through high school dress up for our theme days. Monday was Superhero Day, Tuesday was Spirit Day, Wednesday was Western Day, and Thursday was Nerd Day. We often have Pajama Day, 70s or 80s Day, or Crazy Hair Day thrown in the mix. We never venture outside those few familiar dress up days.

There are a lot of issues with a lot of these dress up days. I’ll give you a rundown:

  • Superhero Day is male heavy, as many of the most famous comic book heroes are men, and the ones that are women have impractical costumes. I invented my own, as did most of the girls in our department. Except Taz. She was a Ninja Turtle.
  • Spirit Day here is red and white. I have always thought it felt…clannish and nationalistic. Here it’s different, since our sports teams are, well, not our brightest feature. At other schools where I’ve attended or worked, the school spirit thing really bothered me. We love Us. We hate Them, why? It seemed so arbitrary, like the training ground for strident nationalism. Ick.
  • Western Day. Oh, man. I live in a Western state, and we embrace our history of Manifest Destiny and state’s rights. Our hallways were filled with cowboys and Indians*, and it made me as uncomfortable as a Thanksgiving feast attended by Pilgrims and Indians*. The notion of the romantic cowboy and the noble savage* and taming the West and conquering the land? Yeah, that’s pretty much Idaho. And we reinforced it on Wednesday.
  • Nerd Day. I had a conversation with the language therapy aide today about Nerd Day reinforcing stereotypes. And I had a lengthy conversation with my students about labels and bullying. I told them about growing up and getting picked on. And how I knew kids who were bullied for having thick glasses or pants that were too short. And that in high school I reclaimed the word Nerd for myself, and that every day is Nerd Day for me. We decided together that reading is good, and learning is important, and there is no ONE kind of smart so Nerd Day is kinda silly.

With that summary summarized, I’d like to go back to Wednesday. And by that, I mean I’d like to tell you how I totally blew it as a teacher and an ally when we made that wanted-poster craft:

Description: Black frame with words WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE on the edges. Fluttershy from My Little Pony is inside the frame. Superimposed over the photo are the words "NOT my best craft."

Description: Black frame with words WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE on the edges. Fluttershy from My Little Pony is inside the frame. Superimposed over the photo are the words “NOT my best craft.”

Mistake 1: Within the context of current events, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE is privileged and insensitive.

Boy, howdy, did I blow it here. I could try to explain it away by saying I didn’t plan the activity (because I didn’t), but I still used it. DEAD OR ALIVE is not cute within the context of encounters between police and people with disabilities. More specifically, I completely ignored the context of encounters between the police and people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. I lived near the Twin Cities when police assaulted Douglas Bahl; forgetting this critical context is a major error on my part. It is an error similar to the Run from the Cops event that Special Olympics Washington planned last year.

Mistake 2: Within an historical context, ALL THE THINGS!!

There are two bumper stickers that come to mind right now. I saw one in college that said, The West wasn’t won on salad. And there’s one I see every day in the school parking lot: The West wasn’t won with a registered gun. Both of these make my skin crawl, first as a nonviolent vegetarian. Secondly, and more importantly, as an empathetic human. Only through the lens of Manifest Destiny can one say the West was “won.” Only through the lens of colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, genocide can it be “won.” Otherwise, it was stolen, usurped, conquered, invaded, pillaged, raped, and plundered. That is the legacy of the West. Western Day reinforced all of that. How can we justify that to our older students who have learned or will be learning about that period in American History? WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE glamorizes vigilante justice, romanticizes the American (white) Cowboy, and erases the brutality of so-called heroes. WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE erases the contributions of women and people of color to our nation’s and our state’s history. It attempts to legitimize my state’s history of “beating the Indian out of the child.” And I just added to that.

Mistake 3: It flies in the face of everything I’ve been trying to do in my classroom for years.

See points 1 and 2. Also every post filed under, like, every category except the ones about my mom.

Part of being an ally, of being a teacher, of being human is admitting when we’ve messed up. I messed up. I’ll do better. I’ll make mistakes, but I won’t make this same mistake.

*These are not terms I use in common discourse, teaching, or writing. I use them here as they are used either in conversations around me or to represent the tropes/cliches of the region.

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4 comments

  1. I’m wondering when and where such imagery can be usurped to turn notions on their head. Then again, ‘dead or alive’ posters are not necessarily something worth appropriating.

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    1. I think there are definitely times for using images to illustrate the absurdity of those images. Most of the time, I have found that the best examples are executed by those whom the images originally marginalized: women repurposing Barbies to illustrate the absurdity of body image expectations, and the movie Black Dynamite lampooning the blaxploitation films of the 70s.

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