I was sitting and drinking coffee when I learned something that made my brain explode. Just a second earlier, I had been talking with my parents about a mini snowman that someone had made on top of a mailbox, which I had spotted during my walk and found really cute and funny. But now their innocuous questions – Do you know who made it? Did you post the picture on Instagram? – made my brain physically hurt. Filled to capacity by the horrific news, it simply could not accept any more input.
I covered my ears. I could not process, let alone answer, the simple questions. The sounds of silverware and plates clattering at nearby tables were like bombs exploding in my cranium. A group of people walked behind me; to my tortured brain their chatter sounded like shrill screaming.
“What was this horrible news?” you might be wondering.
The answer: the fact that the National Park Service reportedly planned to remove a statue of William Penn from Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, the historic site dedicated to the Declaration of Independence. The obliteration of Penn as a historical figure was planned in order, in the NPS’s words, to make the park more “welcoming” and “inclusive” (source here).
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I like historical figures. I like historical figures because I have been bullied and excluded all my life. I have never fit in with the people around me, and I have never been able to relate to them. I only relate to historical figures. By removing historical figures from public spaces, our society is ensuring that I cannot feel welcome or included in those spaces. This makes those spaces less, not more, welcoming and inclusive.
All of the people who wear the latest fashions, speak using the latest slang, listen to the latest music, watch the latest shows, and spend their time texting and face timing with their friends… they don’t need to feel more welcomed or included. They’ve felt welcome and included their entire lives, because they are the majority. It’s people like me, who wore plaid dresses and skirts, did their hair in pigtails, collected dolls and toy soldiers, listened to show tunes and Disney music, and spent their time making paper dolls and reading about historical figures… it’s people like me who have faced a lifetime of exclusion because of how we dress, how we talk, what we like, and how we spend our time. It’s people like me who need, and deserve, to feel more welcomed and included.
But instead, our society has decided to make people like me feel less welcomed and included. Removing statues, removing the names of historical figures from buildings and streets, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day… these actions create a less, not more, welcoming and inclusive world. After spending a lifetime feeling excluded at school, in extracurricular activities, online, and in social groups, I have now, for the past three and a half years, been forced to witness the public spaces of our country being reconfigured using cranes and work crews to ensure that I feel excluded there, too.
Historical figures are me. Historical figures are the only people I can relate to. By eliminating them from public spaces, our society has also eliminated any possibility for me to exist in those spaces without being filled with grief, anger, and pain. Society has actively transformed public space to ensure that people like me do not feel welcomed or included there.
So, no. Removing a statue of William Penn does not make a park more welcoming or inclusive. It does the opposite.
And then there is the obvious fact that removing something is, by its very nature, the opposite of being inclusive. Think about it: removing something from a space necessarily means that fewer things are now being included in that space. Removing a statue necessarily means that fewer historical figures are now being depicted, fewer stories being told, fewer perspectives being represented. That’s the antithesis of being inclusive.
As a commenter on the post linked above astutely wrote, “Not inclusive of white people… If they want ‘inclusive’ history why not just add it?”
I began this blog post by describing my experience in the coffee shop in order to demonstrate that the National Park Service, by coming up with the plan to remove the William Penn statue, actively inflicted harm on me as an autistic person. The NPS’s actions directly caused me emotional distress and directly caused my brain to explode in agonizing pain. Yet another way in which the NPS’s decision is the opposite of being welcoming and inclusive.
There is, however, a nugget of good news in this story. According to more recent reports (see comments section of source linked above) the NPS has changed their mind and now does not intend to do anything to the statue of William Penn. Fingers crossed that this is correct.