The old (left) and new (right) seal of the village of Whitesboro in New York state (images via Wikipedia and village of Whitesboro)

Sometimes whiteness just can’t help itself. Even when it doesn’t mean to, it ends up revealing its core principles: othering those who are ethnically different, dominating these others by violence or threat of violence, cloaking that hostility in silly rhetoric, choosing symbols that give the entire plot away, and only changing when it can be done at an affordable price!

I give you exhibit A: the town of Whitesboro, a village of about 3,700 residents in central New York state, founded by Hugh White. (I mean, the story damn near writes itself.) Just last year, January, the town voted to keep hold of its village seal which has an image of a white man attired in what looks like a buckskin suit, strangling a Native American man in buckskin trousers falling backwards with the other’s hands at his neck. On hearing of this, we had written about the seal, rightly describing it as “insanely racist.” Perhaps in the intervening year, with the scrutiny of several other media outlets, including a particularly scathing segment of the Daily Show, settling on the town, Whitesboro finally succumbed to good reason and maybe a little shame to change the emblem. Now it’s only suggestive of conflict, as opposed to dominance by way of brutality. The new seal has two figures wearing contrasting colonial-era dress (representing Hugh White and a member of the Oneida Indian Nation), and each have their hands on each other’s shoulders and arms, their foreheads pressed together. Neither seems to have the advantage over the other. Still, it’s obvious that the townspeople have a kind of settler worldview — imagining that any encounter with the ethnic other must be a contest for dominance with an eventual loser and winner. Is there a more impoverished way to see the social world?

Of course, the town’s representatives claimed that the previous seal was essentially harmless. Mayor Patrick O’Connor told the Village Voice that “it’s actually a very accurate depiction of friendly wrestling matches that took place back in those days.” Dana Nimey-Olney, clerk and registrar for the village, reportedly said, “It was now [sic] they became friendly,” “They wanted each other’s respect through things like this wrestling match.” I don’t read simulated choking that way. Unless adults are playing a game with a safe word as a way out, it’s been shown that strangulation is a predictor for homicide especially in case of domestic violence. This is some deep-dish cognitive dissonance served with a side of village pride. The previous seal was in essence signaling what White fantasized about or planned to do to the other. Likely that image had been comforting in an inexplicable way for the folks of Whitesboro.

The new emblem, reportedly designed by an art school student in Utica, for less than $1,000 does look like it was done to spare any extra expense. After all, when you are compelled by public opinion to abandon the obvious indicia of deeply entrenched racism and fear of the other, you want to save money doing it.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...