Place names matter

Dear President Trump,

Another hot sunny Sunday means that once again we took our dog stroll at the University of Washington. It’s one of the few places with mid-day shade where our little dog won’t pick up too many burrs or too much pitch in his hairy feet. These factors and the free parking after noon on Saturday make it the go to option many a weekend. We didn’t get to see the heron rookery this time, but we did find an old building on the quad with odd friezes of grotesque heads. They aren’t gargoyles, per se, but they are pretty misshapen semi-human faces with a couple of animals thrown in, a coyote and a raven, I think. Not surprisingly, all of the semi-human faces look male. Right next door is another building with flatter friezes of oodles of famous men (Aristotle, Kant, Moses (complete with miniature 10 commandment tablets), etc.). The faces are framed by shield-like shapes and there are two blank shields on either side of the phalanx of faces on two sides of the buildings (so 8 empty shields that I counted) and I think the university needs to install likenesses of women and people of color. And I think they should be rendered in colorful mosaics or something else that really stands out to make it clear that these were much later, corrective, additions.

There is one image on campus that is clearly a woman. It is part of a trio of friezes with the first (going left to right) of a giant hand holding a baby, the second is a man with an open book in his lap and he’s gazing up looking day-dreamy, and the third is the woman and she is crouched down with her head cocked to the side and her hands up over her shoulder looking like she is carrying the weight of the world. I’m not kidding. Cradled baby, lazing, spaced out man, and burdened woman. And she’s it as far as visual images of women on campus. Between the semi-human faces, the famous men, the bronze busts of men, and the statue of George Washington there are probably around 40 visual images of men on campus.

So, you might wonder (or not) about the buildings and who they are named after? Is the male/female ratio any better? Why, gosh, no surprise, it’s not. It took a ridiculously long time to look up all the named buildings on campus (there are about 72) to try to figure out the first names of all the buildings other than the ones where the first name is part of the building’s name (e.g., Mary Gates Hall). There were four I couldn’t find, but here’s what I got on the other 68 – 5 were named for women, 3 were named for couples, and 60 were named for men. This means that 7.3% of the buildings named for a single person were named for women and 92.7% of such buildings were named for men. Put another way, there are about 12 times as many buildings on campus named for men than for women (and if I had to bet money, I’d wager that none of them are named for someone of color).

Now you and Mike Pompeo might argue that this ratio of males to females (and whites to non-whites) in building naming and visual representation is just reflecting natural law – that white men are honored with statuary and place names so incredibly frequently because they are the best, they contributed the most, they are so fricking amazing that it’s just natural that practically everything is about them. Right? That’s why you have your name on something like 45 current or in development properties (not counting the 11 former or the 14 that were cancelled or never completed – thank you Wikipedia). It’s got nothing to do with your father or with tax evasion or money laundering – it’s all you and your gloriousness that got your name plastered everywhere. Right.

I’m not saying that the many men gracing every corner of the UW didn’t do cool things or didn’t give the university a lot of money or whatever. But something is very off here and it wears on a woman (who was a girl who was sensitive to such things) to walk and walk and walk and look and look and look and only ever see herself reflected in a single frieze of a single female who looks like she is literally trying to hold up the world on her shoulder and to have just 5 of the 100+ buildings on campus named for females. This sort of stuff matters. A lot. My pastor said today that oppression is the default and she’s right. We have so not been about lifting everyone up and it’s painfully obvious when we drill down and look at who is valued and what kind of people dominate the public sphere so ubiquitously that we mostly don’t give it a second thought – it’s simply a given that virtually everything around us that is named is named for white men. It is heavy, like the weight of the world, and I’m tired of it.

May we all be safe to be amazing.
May we reset and be willing to lift everyone up.
May we understand that never seeing oneself represented positively in the public sphere is detrimental to one’s health.
May we not make peace with going back to the status quo once we are rid of you.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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