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Mascots by any other name

Derogatory stereotypes in school team names face slow change
Pekin Community High School District No. 303 in Illinois changed its mascot in 1980 from a derogatory term for Chinese people to the dragon.
Pekin Community High School District No. 303 in Illinois changed its mascot in 1980 from a derogatory term for Chinese people to the dragon.

Mascots with names like the Orientals and the Redskins will no longer be cheering on student athletes in some schools. Districts across the county are coming under fire from civil rights groups for perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes that could impact students’ view of a diverse society.

Though team names and mascots such as those listed above may be a source of pride for students and alumni, many were created several decades ago and use racial or ethnic names that are no longer considered appropriate. School leaders must now decide how best to deal with mascots that are offensive to some but beloved by others.

One of the first professional sports teams to use an ethnic name was the Cleveland Indians, formed in 1915. The Washington Redskins were established in 1932. Public schools choose team names and mascots for a variety of reasons—often to convey a fighting spirit, power or energy, says Deborah Lauter, civil rights director at the Anti-Defamation League, a national civil rights organization.

In the past, ethnic-based mascots were chosen because there was less sensitivity about stereotypes and America was less diverse than it is today, she adds.

Coachella Valley USD in Thermal, Calif., recently drew media attention after videos of its mascot, the Arab, surfaced online. The Arab is depicted in a logo as a glaring, bearded man with one tooth and a traditional head covering. During football games, a female belly dancer prances and shakes around the Arab mascot.

A civil rights group has asked the district to eliminate the figure they describe as “orientalist stereotyping of Arabs” that demeans an ethnic group.

This example and others serve as teachable moments for students and the larger community to discuss diversity, Lauter says. “Sports are such a centerpiece of American culture, and reflect our values of inclusion and equality,” she says. “When teams struggle with name or mascot imagery, it speaks to a broader issue about how we want civil society in America today.”

The Anti-Defamation League has called on professional teams and school districts—including Coachella Valley USD and Houston ISD—to change mascots that may be considered culturally insensitive since 1987. “We acknowledge that the tradition matters, but it can’t justify the perpetuation of a negative stereotype,” Lauter says.

Reaching a compromise

Coachella Valley High School was built in 1910, when Middle Eastern farmers were helping to launch the region’s date fruit industry. The school chose the Arab as its mascot in the 1920s, in part to recognize the importance of the date industry and mesh with the names of the neighboring desert towns Mecca, Oasis and Arabia.

Over the last hundred years, the logo has gone through several iterations, beginning in the 1920s with a horseman carrying a lance, and ending with the scowling, mustachioed figure in use today.

The controversy was sparked in November by YouTube videos of a Coachella Valley High School student in an Arab costume with a large head and hooked nose performing with a belly dancer at a football game.

“It was originally a pirate costume that was converted to look similar to the Arab mascot a few years ago,” says David Hinkle, former secretary of the board of directors of the Coachella Valley High School Alumni Association. “It’s not very professional, and probably why this started. We’ve had this mascot for 100 years and no one’s ever complained.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the nation’s largest Arab-American civil rights organization, has asked Superintendent Darryl Adams to get rid of the mascot. “The continued use of the ‘Arab’ mascot perpetuates demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans,” Abed Ayoub, the committee’s director of legal and policy affairs, wrote in a petition. “Coachella Valley High School’s gross stereotyping cannot be tolerated.”

Coachella Valley USD held several school board meetings and press conferences around the issue. Ultimately, the district decided to keep the Arab name but create a less menacing mascot.

A committee comprising the high school principal, the alumni association president, a parent and a local Arab-American rancher are working to suggest changes, which will be presented to the school board in April. One option under consideration is the original 1920s drawing of the Arab man on the horse with a lance.

The change will cost the district thousands of dollars—it will require a new gym floor, since the mascot is painted across the center, Hinkle says. The school will also need new athletic uniforms, stationery and other items with the logo. Further, walls throughout the building will need to be painted over, Hinkle adds.

Banning ethnic mascots

In Houston, community members complained that four school mascots were outdated and derogatory: the Lamar High School Redskins, the Welch Middle School Warriors (which are linked to Indian stereotypes), the Hamilton Middle School Indians and the Westbury High School Rebels (seen as a reference to the Confederacy during the Civil War). Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis and activist groups including the Anti-Defamation League wrote to Superintendent Terry Grier asking him to change the team names.

The Houston ISD school board voted unanimously in January to prohibit the use of any race or ethnic group as a mascot or nickname for a school’s sports team or extracurricular clubs.

“The time has come for the Houston Independent School District—the most vibrantly diverse school district in the nation—to acknowledge that some decisions made generations ago need to be reconsidered,” wrote Grier in a December opinion piece in The Houston Chronicle. “HISD must retire, respectfully, school symbols that no longer reflect the values of who we are—inclusive, sensitive, forward-thinking and committed to instilling character and social awareness in our youngsters.”

The district is the largest in Texas and seventh-largest in the United States, with 282 schools and nearly 210,000 students.

To comply with the new policy, the four Houston schools will change their mascots by fall 2014. Each school community is choosing new mascots, while the district is determining how much the changes will cost.

The most resistance to changing the mascots came from school alumni associations, says district spokesperson Sheleah Reed. “Many students have parents who are alumni, and remember the mascot with pride,” Reed says. “We’re going to have a celebration to introduce the new names and retire the old ones, so we’re not just throwing them aside.”

Taking steps to change

District leaders should not be afraid to change outdated or culturally insensitive mascots, says Lauter from the Anti-Defamation League.

One successful example is Pekin Community High School District No. 303 in Pekin, Ill., which changed its high school mascot in 1980 from a derogatory term for Chinese people to the Dragons. The town got its name from its location, which was believed by residents to be on the exact opposite side of the globe from Peking, a Romanized name for Beijing, China.

In a similar change, the Orientals of East Community Learning Center in Akron, Ohio, also became the Dragons in 2010. “The dragon is very popular and we haven’t had any issues with it,” Pekin Superintendent Gary DePatis says. “It gives the community some tie back to the heritage of our town.”

Communities can benefit from public forums created by administrators at which anyone can express their views on school mascots in a respectful manner, says Lauter.

“In our diversity education programs, we’ve always stressed that ethnic, religious and racial minorities should be treated as equals,” Lauter says. “These images and names have significance to people’s identities. Even though it can be contentious at times, administrators shouldn’t shy away from using it as a teachable moment for their community.”

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.