Hey hey – these mascots are racist

UPDATE 11/17  
FYI I just saw this article about the Washington Redskins football team: 
Washington Redskins can keep team name; Supreme Court refuses native Americans’ suit

Officials with the Washington-based football team maintain that Redskins is an honorific which highlights the proud heritage of native Americans.

Because we said so, that’s why!
Original post:
There was a buzz of global news and blogging a few weeks back when an Australian variety show Hey Hey! It’s Saturday had on an act in which six white men donned massive afros and black face to do a ‘jiving’ impersonation of the Jackson family.  Harry Connic Jr., who was a guest on the show, called out the racist act and said, “I just want to say on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time trying not to make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart.”  And concluding, “If I knew it was going to be part of the show I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”

Thanks to Harry for echoing a sentiment that is all too often ignored or qualified when stated by a person of color.  Doing some really overt race drag performance – ignoring the historical and present practices of racial inequality – and making racial ‘buffons’ out of other communities is just plain un-American.

That is when it comes to crude black face humor.   When it comes to white guys donning red faces and collapsing and parodying the traditions of 500 different tribal cultures into one snazzy dance it’s a totally different story.

Chief Illiniwek's 'Last Dance' in 2007

Chief Illiniwek's 'Last Dance' in 2007

I mean when you’re talking about sports that is… because you have to know just how much we Americans LOVE our sports and in turn our mascots.   There is nothing more American than being a sport’s fan really.

Just look at the following two stories from this past month about the ongoing fight among these oh so American sports fans to preserve two racists mascots at two predominantly white universities.  

At University of Illinois and at the University of North Dakota students and alumni are fighting with everything they’ve got to maintain their right to dress up as Indians, do war dances, tomahawk chops and the like.  And everything they’ve got generally means the entire political system including many elected officials, and a ton of alumni donor cash.

The Washington Times encapsulates the sentiment of the overwhelmingly white students and alumni of UND:   N. Dakota’s Fighting Sioux fights for survival  (September 30, 2009).  This 93% white university is fighting against the ‘politically correct’ world of the NCAA to preserve their right to be pretend Indians for hocky games.    As of October 1st UND was given a 30 day extension on banning the Fighting Sioux mascot – so somewhere in N.D. right now there is an intense political campaign going on to coerce some native tribes to approve this mascot.

Meanwhile, over in Illinois, the caricature of Chief Illiniwek is gone but not forgotten.  Since his retirement as the official school mascot back in 2007 a group of students now brings this caricature back to life each year for a commemorative war dance during a pep rally.   The most recent event was just this past week and was again met with protesters demanding that the university stand behind its decision to retire Illiniwek:  Campus rally to protest ‘Next Dance’ (October 1, 2009)

Well, rather than go on with my thoughts on why University of Illinois’ 10, 647 white students choice to go on honoring the 44 native American students against their wishes is problematic, I’ll just to bring you up to speed, on the official public stand on Native American Mascots.  Otherwise we could twiddle and diddle all day over how a native student named Jimmy actually likes the mascot and a white student name Susie is against it.  So lets skip the personal testimonials and just get to the big stuff universities are known for…. you know research…

There are far too many details for me to delve into all of it here, but suffice to say, very compelling research by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg among others strongly indicated that these mascots are quite simply deeply harming the minorities they propose to be ‘honoring.’  That these mascots damage the self efficacy of Native children and that the damage can be measured and thereby proven in a matter satisfactory to the nations largest psychological association. 

Well based upon a rigorous review of all of this research, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate ‘retirement’ of American Indian Sports Mascots back in 2005.

A key statement in the APA’s position was:

“We know from the literature that oppression, covert and overt racism, and perceived racism can have serious negative consequences for the mental health of American Indian and Alaska native (AIAN) people. We also need to pay careful attention to how these issues manifest themselves in the daily lives (e.g., school, work, traditional practices, and social activities) and experiences of AIAN individuals and communities. As natives, many of us have had personal and family experiences of being the target of frightening, humiliating, and infuriating behaviors on the part of others. This resolution makes a clear statement that racism toward, and the disrespect of, all people in our country and in the larger global context, will not be tolerated,” Dr. Thomas states.

In response to the APA’s stand and to this compelling and nationally recognized research on public harm done to Native peoples by these racist mascots, the NCAA took a similar position back in 2005.    That year they banned NCAA teams from the use of hostile and abusive mascots (we certainly don’t want to be throwing around the r-word). 

The NCAA’s position, to me, does not seem particularly radical, given academia’s inherent responsibility to respond to the best research of the day.  In fact I’d simply equate this with banning cigarette advertising to children or any other malevolent public practice that has proven to harm a significant body of citizens.  But to many this was a blow against our ‘rights’ to express ourselves any way we chose to from the “P.C.” police.

At the time of the ban there were a series of colleges deeply invested in preserving their Native Americans mascots.  The web site American Indian Sports Team Mascots documents this history really well, including images of oh so many racist logos and photos of white fans in painted faces.  One college involved, Florida State,  went through the steps of garnering tribal approval of their mascot

While some colleges retired the mascot, Illinois retirement was such an ugly political process that it made for an amazing documentary.   And as you can see in the above headline, the racist mascot’s retirement continues to be resisted by the students and alumni.  And still today another university, North Dakota, continues to drag its feet and play political games with the states tribes in the hopes of securing ‘tribal approval’ of their Fighting Sioux warrior.

How is it that there can be any question as to what UND needs to do to resolve this ‘problem.’  A publically funded university must be expected to stand up for and respond to research, it must be expected to serve the entire community, it must be expected to take a position through which it works to correct its own historical injustices.  Research deems this practice harmful, past practice has excluded this population from anything remotely like an adequate public education, and present practices within the university and state show again and again attempts to thwart both internal knowledge and tribal resistance.

We have to expect and demand much more from our education system.  This political pandering and back door perpetuation of racism has to be called out again and again and again.  In the words of a writer I greatly admire… It is absolutely necessary to expect more. Leave it to others to make justifications, to distract with conversations about finances and donors, to ignore and counter the best evidence we have on this topic.  I will expect more. 


There is plenty of interesting blogging on this topic, Eric Stoller recently wrote about The University of North Dakota’s insistence on perpetuating stereotypes.

And Resistance pointed out the ‘neutral’ stance the University of Illinois is taking in the ongoing ‘student led’ resurrection of that white guy painted as Chief Illini in a post titled: Institutionalized Racism

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine


1 Comment

Filed under American Indian

One response to “Hey hey – these mascots are racist

  1. Pingback: If there is an “incident” in a locker room… « Schooling Inequality