September 29, 2022
Changing names to step out of a racist shadow
Kai Uyehara

Skagit Audubon Society members watch the skies for birds at the Sauk Mountain trailhead. The Skagit chapter hasn’t decided yet whether to remove John James Audubon’s name from their title and will discuss the idea in October. (Kai Uyehara photo © 2022)

September 29, 2022
Changing names to step out of a racist shadow
Kai Uyehara

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Confederate soldier statues are falling and buildings and organizations are getting new names as the racist pasts of historical figures are uncovered. Legacy, academia and inclusivity are at the core of the discussion when deciding whether or not to remove those names from the titles of institutions.

Among those, the Seattle Audubon Society and Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment have grappled with their commitments to inclusivity, examining both the racist values and academic accomplishments of John James Audubon and Thomas Henry Huxley. Others, such as the Skagit Audubon Society, are pondering their direction.

The Seattle Audubon Society resolved to remove the name of Audubon, a slaveholder and anti-abolitionist, from their chapter’s title in July, becoming the first large chapter affiliated with the National Audubon Society to remove Audubon’s name.

Skagit Audubon Society hasn’t made a decision about removing Audubon’s name from their chapter. They intend to discuss it at their next board meeting in October, said John Day, president of the chapter, though he doesn’t foresee any resolutions being made then.

“There are so many good connotations to the Audubon name, but we’ve become more aware of Audubon’s personal history,” Day said, rendering the Audubon name to a barrier to minority communities who’ve had fewer opportunities to access and learn about nature. 

“If [the name] is going to stop anyone from joining the conservation movement, that’s harm,” said Glenn Nelson, community director for the Seattle chapter. “Because BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] communities suffer the impact of environmental calamities first and disproportionately, if it stops a BIPOC person, that’s even more harm. Every second you keep that name, it’s harming people.”

In Bellingham, WWU’s Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of  Huxley, a British biologist renowned for his contributions to evolutionary theory, from the College of the Environment on the recommendation of the university’s Legacy Review Task Force.

Among the reasons given were Huxley’s expressed views of racial hierarchy evidenced in “Huxley’s Law” and his essay, “Emancipation Black and White,” a reaction to emancipation in the United States that was written years after British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act.

Wayne Landis, WWU professor emeritus, believes some of the information defining Huxley as a racist was incorrect or taken out of context and pushed by creationists who opposed the biologist’s ideas of evolution. 

Nevertheless, the university determined that keeping Huxley’s name would cause more harm than changing it, said Teena Gabrielson, the College of the Environment’s new dean.

“The gain is seen in an institutional environment and a college name that is more inclusive and which highlights not the accomplishments nor legacy of one person, but the mission of the college and the importance of the field,” Gabrielson said.

Meaning beyond a name

Removing the name of an institutional honoree is as symbolic as naming the institution after them in the first place.

“It was not just about evaluating building or college names, nor is it a standalone initiative,” Gabrielson said, reiterating a statement from the board and university president Sabha Randhawa. “It is part of a broader effort to create and sustain an institutional environment that honestly acknowledges Western’s past and provides a springboard for greater inclusivity, equity and success for all going forward.”

While removing Huxley’s name marks a commitment to inclusion for some, it brings the extent of that commitment into question. Landis wants to see diversity recruitment resources that match the de-naming rhetoric and believes that removing Huxley’s name likely won’t affect the student-body diversity.

“Resources are a commitment of social choices,” Landis said. “If we’re really going to produce the best scholarship, the best science, publish the best papers, to have undergraduates doing ground-breaking research, we need a diversity of people.”

Taking down a wall

Seattle Aububon’s Nelson believes that overcoming a name with racist ties is necessary for anti-racism and inclusion.

“Doing all the work and trainings, changing all your programming, being inclusive and not changing your name means all the work that you did is for naught because the name still trips you,” he said.

Nelson couldn’t reach out to BIPOC communities in good conscience with the Audubon name hanging over his head, being aware of the elitism and racism in outdoor recreation and birding that the Audubon name represents. 

“ ‘Audubon’ is a wall,” he said. “To even get BIPOC people and organizations to the table with you, you have to start building trust. You can’t have something like a name being an obstacle to you even being at the table together.”

The overwhelmingly white, older population of conservationist groups like the Seattle society needs to diversify to be sustainable in a diversifying country, Nelson said. 

The society is reaching out to neighborhoods in South Seattle with high minority populations to reach more people who might have an interest in birds and conservation, Nelson said. They’re offering neighborhood walks, field trips and classes to export knowledge to empower communities to conduct their own research. 

The Skagit chapter is reaching out to LGBTQ groups for shared activities, and working on field trip accessibility for disabled folks, Day said. The chapter is collaborating with Skagit organizations on family activities for the large Latino communities in Mount Vernon. 

“I think it’s important to get as many people out there as possible … to develop an understanding that then underpins action on issues such as climate change and the loss of species and the decline of habitat health,” Day said.

Changing, not canceling

Changing an institution’s name doesn’t remove the person’s place in history.

Seattle Audubon isn’t “canceling” Audubon, Nelson said. The society’s intent is only to overcome the obstacle the name presents towards inclusivity, Nelson added. They won’t be teaching about Audubon in the future, as Nelson believes it isn’t essential to conservationism, beyond understanding his role in BIPOC history.

Day, however, finds value in knowing both Audubon’s racism and accomplishments.

“Part of the discussion is how do we acknowledge the huge role that Audubon played in the understanding of North American bird life and natural history, while at the same time recognizing that he also was part of the greatest injustice in American history?” he asked. “I think we can do both.”

The image of Huxley, his accomplishments and impacts on the scientific world will not be changed by his recent removal from the name of the college, Landis said. 

“He’s one of these people that will be known about for hundreds of years,” Landis said. “He’s already done the work.”

WWU’s College of the Environment isn’t the only building to bear Huxley’s name. Imperial College in London underwent a similar call to rename their Huxley Building, but decided to keep the name. 

Legacies

The names of Huxley and Audubon have been removed but their institutions are considering the legacy of the names they now bear.

“The College of the Environment has been an important part of Western’s excellence and history for more than 50 years, but the Huxley name has not been the root of that excellence,” Gabrielson said, attributing the college’s excellence to its faculty, students and alumni for their leadership and achievements.

Originally, naming the college after Huxley was aspirational, Landis said. “Can we be the quality of teacher that he obviously was?” He thinks WWU has lost the brand of a landmark college in removing Huxley’s name, and that the place where he worked for a long time doesn’t exist anymore. 

The Seattle society hopes to inspire the National Audubon Society to follow their initiative, Nelson said. They’re trying “to prod National into being more urgent and transparent with its own process [and] to reignite the conversation about Audubon nationally.”

Nelson thinks other chapters are waiting for the larger organization to make a move, and that they may be afraid that if they change their name like Seattle did, they won’t benefit from the national brand. “Humans are loath to change.”

“I would say 90% of people of color don’t know what [the Audubon Society] is,” he said, “so how can you argue that the brand is so strong and that you’re afraid to leave the brand?”

Why a namesake?

Landis asked why Washington state and institutions named after Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or Chief Seattle haven’t had their names changed like Huxley, and questioned how far society is actually willing to go.

Instead of removing the names, Landis said, teaching the controversial history of a prominent figure is important.

“You have to understand the context of these people to understand how their leap into the future was so great and how they were still a product of their upbringing,” Landis said. “It’s all being honest to every part of who they were.”

Nelson said maybe these names should be next, but “maybe we shouldn’t be naming anything after people, because everyone’s going to turn out to be problematic at some point.”

Naming places and institutions after people isn’t the only way to go, Nelson suggested. 

“Naming things after people is a real Euro-colonialist way of naming places and things,” he said. “In my culture, the Japanese language places are named descriptively. You’re not beholding your organization or your school to [any individual’s] history.”

“Unfortunately, being human, none of us are perfect at all,” Landis said. “Every time you add a person’s name [to an institution], you bring with it lots of baggage.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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