In the flurry of controversy this year over the NFL’s Washington Redskins and other Native American-themed sports franchises, a common point of argument has come in the form of hypothetical analogs. How would you like it if a team were called The New York Jews? for example. The New Mexico Spics? The Cowboys With Diabetes Shooting Hamburger Bullets Out of a Machine Gun?
The National Congress of American Indians produced a graphic that put the Cleveland Indians’ mascot caricature into just such a context, also including a snazzy design for the San Francisco Chinamen. The Onion chimed in as well, writing “Redskins’ Kike Owner Refuses to Change Team’s Name,” in a headline.
The point of this line of thinking is to illuminate for those who still, whether through mere ignorance, or anti-politically-correct spite, simply refuse to understand why it’s offensive to reduce an entire people to a marketing icon, particularly one with such a horrific history of abuse and neglect and violence at the hands of the American government. It’s an exercise in extremes meant to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation, but it turns out we didn’t even need to be dreaming up imaginary racist mascots after all. It gets even worse than we thought.
Last week the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent a letter to California’s Coachella Valley High School, protesting their mascot the “Arab.” You can probably guess exactly how the symbol of the school’s sporting prowess is represented: a bearded, kaffiyeh-wearing monstrosity with a threatening grimace, large hooked nose, and upturned, sinister mustache and eyebrows. The mascot, like something out of the darkest recesses of Edward Said’s Orientialism nightmares, makes its appearance along with a belly dancer, because, well, that’s one other Middle Eastern thing people have heard of.
“There was no intention to demean Arabs or be discriminatory in any way,” said one school alumni, David Hinkle, class of 1961, speaking to the Washington Post. “I don’t think it’s right to decide now that you can’t do that anymore. It is political correctness run amok, I would say.”
As in all such instances of blatant sporting minstrelsy, it’s clearly the perpetrators who are having their “rights” infringed upon. Who will speak for the poor, beleaguered bigots once the P.C. police have finished their assault on noble, proud unassailable Tradition?
The mascot itself dates back to the 1920s, and was meant to recognize the importance of the area’s date farming, which, oh right, one other Middle East thing we know about. The names of nearby towns like Mecca and Arabia pay similar homage.
“We’ve moved forward in this country, we no longer live in those times and there needs to be an understanding of those minority groups,” Abed Ayoub of the AAADC said to the Los Angeles Times. “Respecting the heritage and paying homage to the heritage could be done in a way that is not offensive.”
I don’t think there is actually. For supporters of these types of mascots, the same people, mind you, who’ll take umbrage at other countries’ use of American iconography in effigy even as our good old homegrown bombs are exploding around them, the tradition itself that they’re holding on to is inextricably bound up in the racism itself. It’s not other cultures’ proud traditions they’re saluting, it’s our own quintessentially American heritage of otherizing those who we hold in contempt. Makes one miss the days when they didn’t have enough power to say anything about it.
Photo by Marilyn Chung, Associated Press