Racial Mascotry and the Space for “Enlightening Discussions”

Over the last several years, as students and activists of color have been increasingly organizing around issues of racial (and economic) injustice particularly as affects them, you may have also noticed more than a fair share of pushback from mainstream and liberal publications (whereas previously most of the counter-resistance was from conservative outlets). Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, etc, etc, seem to be in need of op-eds and features written by establishment, upper-middle class people about the perils of allowing these protesters too much space in the public imagination.

Their arguments are that the activists are too violent, that they are childish, pouting, not ready for the real world, denying freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the school. They argue that ‘woke’ Milennials seeking safe places are a threat to academic freedom and the classroom, and that they are being coddled and babied.

Most of these arguments are simply dismissed by applying the title of Adam Kotsko’s blog, “What If I Told You that the Whole World Is Your Safe Place?” to the very people complaining about the struggle of these students to find a safe place of their own.

But yet there is a part of me concerned about academic freedom and about workers’ rights (noticeably the right to secure employment that is not threatened by non-work related experiences and ambushes by social media). For me, seeking penal justice gives more ammunition (so to speak) to the very forces of White Supremacy that have criminalized people of color and organized forms of resistance (notice, for example, how in one state resistance to the police is now categorized as a hate crime–  a bill hailed as Blue Lives Matter Law in recognition of its counter to Black Lives Matter activism).

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It was in this frame of mind that I read Conor Friedersdorf’s highly-opinionated-yet-delivered-as-if-rational (which is to say, stripped of its context of racial violence) article “The Perils of Writing a Provocative Email at Yale” in The Atlantic and first came away thinking, “Aw man, that’s fucked up what happened to those professors.”

I had to come back to it later. The language in here made me think that the costumes were merely “offensive”, as if someone was bothered by clown make up. I thought at first glance that the email was largely harmless, certainly not on the order of a firing.

But riding on my bike, I thought about the gentrifiers coming into my neighborhood, Humboldt Park in Chicago, and wanting to tear down the beautiful Puerto Rican flag that has been a symbol of this Boriquen Oasis for decades on the grounds that it is somehow “racist” – despite the fact that it is the White people forcefully displacing Ricans. I thought about how White people had created a Facebook page calling themselves “The Puerto Ricans of Humboldt Park” and employing every racist, classist stereotype they could of my people – thugs, rapists, thieves, car jackers, drug users, lazy, welfare dependents. These are people, they heavily suggested in their caricatures, who deserve to be kicked out and denied access and opportunity. I thought what I would think if White people moving into Humboldt Park and Logan Square walked around in “Jibarito” costumes. I was then flushed with anger and resentment.

And then I was able to re-situate the Atlantic article. Yale, George W Bush’s alma mater, is well-known as one of the Whitest of the Whitest of White institutions. But Friedersdorf and the “provocative email” writers, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, assume that students of color can just have enlightening conversations with White students who wear their faces as if they are trophies on their walls.

Native Mascotry is a term created by American Indian activist Jacqueline Keeler to describe how Natives’ identities are being worn by sports teams and others as a way of cultural genocide. While not wanting to erase her work and what this means as it relates to Native American people and communities (particularly in light of the bullshit campaign by Dan Snyder and the Washington Post to once again pretend that a racist slur is a responsible and respectful honorific to an oppressed people group), I’d like to consider what it means that people of color are being mascot-ed through costume.

This extended mascotry – dressing as “gangsters” or “Chinese” for Halloween, as “Mexican” for Cinco de Mayo, as “Indian” for game day – is not separate from other forms of institutional racism and racial violence. In fact, it’s an integral aspect of racial violence. It is the physical and visual enactment of racist justification played out in the social sphere. “These people are no more than cartoons and thus are not hared by how we treat them.” The implication is that these mascot-ed/costume-d cultures and communities cannot and should not be taken seriously, nor their concerns; that they are not real or normal (read: White people). This mascotry is socially-inhabited psychological warfare.

It is not a simple feat to meet people committing psychological warfare against your very family and culture on any sort of level ground. The power dynamics are off and thus you are not entering a place for dialog.

I still do not know what any sort of proper response is to this. I don’t think the approach is as simple as firing or using the justice system. However, as resident life coordinators, however, it seems that Christakis’ were unsuited to the task that would make Yale hospitable for students of color.

Maybe the solution lies in White people not being so offended when they realize that they and their concerns are not the center of the universe. That would be a start.

Chief Illiniwek and Tradition

A high school basketball game between two rivals in Central Illinois was going to highlight the return of the very racist Chief Illiniwek.* The Chief, an epically offensive mascot that the University of Illinois put out of its misery after appeals by students, Native American groups, and finally the NAACP forced its greedy little hands, is still a popular favorite among white sports lovers in my own Illinois who claim it is a part of their tradition and should be honored as such. It’s a racist tradition they are still proud of.

Still. In 2015.

uhWHUT?

uhWHUT?

Ever ask a Southerner why they sometimes carry the Confederate Battle Flag as a sign of pride? Usually they answer like Accidentally Racist Brad Paisley – it’s a sign of respecting their tradition. And this is where you cue Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition is a good thing, right? We should all honor our forbearers and ancestors. But what happens when the tradition being honored isn’t really yours in the first place? Or the tradition that you’re honoring has more to do with ending the traditions and cultures of countless people? In light of the awfully racist University of Illinois’s Native Mascot “Chief Illini” being resurrected at local high schools in central Illinois and all of the white people defending this, let’s talk about traditions.

Before we go any further, we should clarify that there is no good analogy in this scenario. When sports teams take the names and images of First Nations – like the Tomohawk Chop or Chief Illiniwek – it’s not just offensive or politically incorrect. It’s not even just oppressive. It is an act of genocide. So there is no good comparison to be made in the US. Maybe with Israel and Palestine, but even there it’s not quite the same. So the comparisons made here should be read with that context, I think, and not be made into memes.)

My inheritance legacy is a mixture of Puerto Rican, Irish and other European roots (including English and Dutch), many of which have been in the US dating back to the Revolutionary War. So I’m thinking of translating, loosely, what kind of “honor” these sports fans give to Native Americans into how I’d see them as a Puerto Rican, as an Irish lad, as a poor white guy.

When I think about the R*dsk*ns and the Chiefs and the Fighting Illini (which, by the way, the Illini nation was peace-loving and not a warrior tribe), although I cannot personally relate and any similarities fall short, I think of how I felt hearing white people referring to my grandmother as a “sp*c.” I can only begin to imagine the caricatures, the ridiculous movements that Anglos would practice. Dressing up in brown-face, yelling “WAAYYYYYPA!” as a battle cry. Acting drunk and eating tacos (which is not a Puerto Rican cuisine in the least) because that’s how they imagine Puerto Ricans acting. The mascot would be a toad (instead of the traditional island frog coquí) or a dancing gang member out of West Side Story. The anthem would be “Everything is free in America.” What if the opposing teams had signs of Teddy Roosevelt taking the hills of San Juan? I mean, yay USA “freeing” brown people from Europeans by conquest and giving the land to the much more civil USA. “Freedom.”

Now, would this be somebody’s legacy? Of course it would. It would be the legacy of racist people. It would be the tradition of coopting, mockery, misrepresentation, oppression and money-making. This is what racism is! Their memory is being honored here because it’s obviously not Boriquas. In fact, it is a memory – but it’s a painful one that still stings.

I’m wondering what it would be for the English to similarly “honor” the Irish. What if their soccer teams to have names like the Starving Irish to honor the memory of the great potato famine? Their mascots can be the leprechaun from Lucky Charms or the slasher flicks1. Or it could be drunken men stooping around and saying nonsense. It could be

People will bring up the Fighting Irish at this point. And while it is a caricature, Notre Dame is an Irish institution deciding to poke fun at their own selves and point to an Irish legacy in such a way. There is a tremendous distinction between a people deciding to poke light fun at themselves and finding humor in their collective memory and one where the murderers, those who have been sending their children off to war or starving them or denying them of decent housing and life take those caricatures. One is finding meaning in suffering – the other is denying meaning through suffering.

Another legacy I share is that of poor white family. So I imagine if rich people were to have horse jockey teams called The Rednecks or White Trash. That would be different than poor white people declaring their affinity for those titles (one I don’t share). In fact, poor white people’s pride for the names were originally an act of defiance against the disdain of Yankees and upper middle class folks. Again we must ask, whose legacy is served by these icons? Likely, the people who have kept poor white people in their “place”.

Some traditions need to be thrown away and tossed in the fire. Especially when they’re murderous.

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*The halftime show – which was set between two high school teams whose names and logos are also anti-Native American mascotry, The Tuscola Warriors and the Sullivan R*dsk*ns – has been canceled. The Tuscola school district did not cancel out of any sense of human decency but out of safety concerns. Which is one of the more racist things I’ve heard. Teach them early, right?