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The dominant narrative of Grand Rapids is Whiteness: A deconstruction of the We Are GRStrong video

June 25, 2020

When we have finally overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, many will reflect back on what happened and how Grand Rapids responded to this crisis. However, as with any aspect of our collective history, those who often control the narrative are those with the most power.

This kind of dominant narrative, a narrative created by those with power, can be seen in the most recent video created by SALT and Cre8gency, entitled, WE Are GRStrong.

The video tells a narrative that primarily centers what businesses did to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. We learned from the video that these businesses “innovated” and “created” new opportunities and collaborations that put the well-being of people before profits. The person who says that businesses put the well being before profits was an Amway executive, who was standing in front of the Amway headquarters in Ada. If fact, Amway also has another cameo in the video, where we see one of their vans delivering supplies in boxes, conveniently label with the company name.

There were numerous companies and business associations involved in this video project, which are listed in the graphic below. However, what I found most offensive about this video was the not just the narrative it sought to communicate, but more importantly the narrative that was omitted.

The video presents a feel-good, people coming together kind of vibe, with lots of white saviors coming to the rescue. One of the white people interviewed even said that this was a time of heroes, which was overwhelmingly represented by white people in the video. I counted 19 times where a white person was speaking on camera and only two times where the person speaking was a person of color. Whiteness is the dominant narrative of Grand Rapids, where white saviors come to the rescue, particularly white Christian, business owners.

When I say whiteness, I am not just talking about white people, I am talking about a way of being in the world, one that centers and privileges white reality and white values. Now ask yourself who has economic and political power in this city? Who has power to impose their will on other people or whole communities? What entities spend a great deal of time celebrating Grand Rapids and all of the lists that the city has been included in recent years? Who in this city makes it a point to say that Grand Rapids is a great place to raise a family? The answer is always white people. Whether we are talking about the DeVos family, the Meijer family, Secchia, Jandernoa, Rockford Construction, the Right Place Inc., the Art Museum, the Christian Reformed Church, the commercial news media, Experience GR, Mel Trotter Ministries or ArtPrize, all of these people and entities ooze whiteness.

However, there is another narrative that we need to tell. We need to tell a narrative that is insurgent and a narrative that disrupts whiteness. We need to tell a narrative that provides context and critiques power. We need to tell a narrative that doesn’t reflect business as usual and centers those most affected by whiteness.

This insurgent, radical narrative would honestly reflect on how the very centers of power would benefit from the COVID-19 crisis, despite their efforts to presents themselves as saviors. A radically insurgent narrative would make clear how the systems of White Supremacy and Capitalism were exposed during the COVID-19 crisis. This narrative would talk about all of the Mutual Aid that people engaged in throughout the community, whether we are talking about the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network, La Lucha Fund or the other ways that people looked out for each other.

We could talk about how the data shows that those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus were Black residents. We could talk about how a Black-led resistance movement was born during the Covid-19 crisis and that this Black-led resistance movement pulled back the curtain on Grand Rapids and allowed us to see what those in power are really all about. We learned that that property is more valuable than Black lives. We learned that so-called progressive leaders brought in the National Guard to assist the GRPD in their attempts to suppress an uprising, and this Black-led resistance movement provided an opportunity to demand more than weak reformist platforms.

We must call the We Are GRStrong video what it is, a narrative that whitewashes systemic oppression. According to those who produced the 4 minute video, they are going to produce a feature documentary that will further solidify the Whiteness of Grand Rapids. Who wants to work on creating a counter narrative?

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