Ask ARP: How do I explain why Indian mascots are offensive?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent:

I recently read an article in my local newspaper, “Indian spirit carries Brimfield girls to state,” about a local basketball team. I could not believe that a local school would still be using Native Americans as mascots—something that I know is offensive to many indigenous peoples and to ME as well. I posted a comment to the article and on my blog, expressing my feelings. They were not well-received, but one response to my comment in particular troubles me. It is from my pastor, who wrote to me:

Another way of thinking…

My son… who is a Brimfield Indian…two nights ago at dinner, waxed eloquently in his dinner prayer about thanking God for the Indians who were here first, and took care of the land…yada…yada…yada…which caused J and I to both look up, during his prayer.

So we asked him… and he said his teacher had been teaching them about the debt of gratitude we owe to the Indians.

So maybe a mascot is a term of respect, of honoring the people that were here first.
Why do we have to find things to be offended by?

Just my thought… as a parent.

I know I should be able to respond, but I really need help.

Holly W.

From the Editor:

It amazes me how resistant many people are to hearing that something is offensive to a marginalized racial group. The very idea that something might be racially offensive makes people indignant, defensive and righteous in their claims that the world has gotten “to P.C.”

Why do we have to FIND things to be offended by?

The implication is that if mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society does not find a thing beyond the pale, then it is acceptable, no matter what anyone else says.

When I am exposed to this attitude, I hear this: “I am drunk on my own privilege. Your feelings are not as important as my intentions. If I deem my actions well-meaning, then their consequences scarcely matter. I cannot be bothered to change—even if changing is painless for me—to spare another from pain.”

People like the ones who shouted you down in the comments to original article are rarely interested in hearing why something might be offensive. For those that do care, in a position paper on the subject, the National Congress of American Indians says:

For most Americans the days of overt and institutional racism where thought to have become a distant memory. At one time symbols like the “Black Sambo” and “Frito Bandito” were commonly accepted by mainstream America as playful marketing tools. That was the past, times have changed and America has supposedly grown up and away from such potent symbols of racism. However, for American Indians this practice continues. From the racially-derived “Washington Redskins” to the war-like “Florida Seminoles”, American Indian mascots are found at the professional sports level as well as the high school and college levels. Far from honoring Native Americans, these mascots are a national insult, and represent the last vestiges of a time thought long-past when such stereotypes were commonplace. Just as “Sambo” served to perpetuate racism and bigotry toward the African-American community, these mascots and team names serve to keep Native Americans in a similar position. Read more…

Wikipedia also sheds some light on the issue:

Opponents of Native American mascots feel that the mascots breed insensitivity and misunderstanding about native people. Opponents also highlight the seeming double standard for racial mascots where there are no mascots based on African Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans depicted in sports. The University of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish.” and the University of Louisiana Lafayette’s “Ragin’ Cajuns” are notable exceptions to the debate, as those schools selected symbols that represent themselves historically. Another exception is the “Braves” of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a school originally created to educate Native Americans.

“ (Trudie Lamb Richmond doesn’t) know what to say when kids argue, ‘I don’t care what you say, we are honoring you. We are keeping our Indian.’ … What if it were ‘our black’ or ‘our Hispanic’? ”
—- Amy D’orio quoting Trudie Lamb Richmond, March 1996, Indian Chief Is Mascot No More

A big issue in the Native American mascot debate is the use of Indian mascots by elementary, middle and high school sports teams. Opponents of Native American mascots feel that children should be exposed to realistic and positive portrayals of American Indians during their educational years. Kathy Morning Star, director of the American Indian Cultural Support, states that “It is the responsibility of educators to set the example and teach the youth of today to respect other ethnic or minority peoples – NOT to exploit or disrespect them by using them as ‘mascots’ or stereotypical ‘images’ which perpetuates racism.”

Many opponents also take offense to proponents of Native American mascots that claim they are simply paying tribute to native people. Considering many Native Americans’ stance on this issue, opponents of Native American mascots feel that the mascots should be deemed offensive by the people being imitated, not by those who are imitating. Barbara Munson of the Oneida nation states “When someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist – then the harm becomes intentional.”

Opponents also deem it insensitive when unconscious phrases like “Kill the Indians” or “Murder the Redskins” are yelled during sporting events (the latter of which is particularly yelled by Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants fans, due to long-standing NFL rivalries), referring to the team playing, but also creating a negative view of Native Americans. Read more…

So, how to appeal to your pastor? You might share some of the above information with him, particularly this:

Considering many Native Americans’ stance on this issue, opponents of Native American mascots feel that the mascots should be deemed offensive by the people being imitated, not by those who are imitating. Barbara Munson of the Oneida nation states “When someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist – then the harm becomes intentional.”

I think this part is important. This issue, at its core, isn’t even about race. It’s about human decency and respect. No one wants to offend and cause another person distress. For those who cannot grasp the racial issues here, they should consider that most of us make little alterations to our behavior every day for the benefit of others.

Consider how the people that your pastor encounters might change their actions in the presence of a professed man of God. Even if I do not share your pastor’s level of religiosity, I would not use certain language in his presence. I may avoid certain topics. I would respect him and his beliefs. But what if I knew that certain things offended your pastor’s sensibilities, but I arrogantly refused to acknowledge this. What if I dropped the occasional “F-bomb,” held forth on several racy topics and ranted about the folly of creationism knowing that my actions, though benign to me, were making him uncomfortable? Would the worse person be your pastor for perhaps voicing his discomfort–finding something to be offended by–or me for willfully disregarding his feelings?

Readers, weigh in.
 

 

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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