Earlier this week, I attended a school board meeting that occurred in a community in lower western Michigan. Tagged with others via social media by a friend, I was made aware of the meeting and that the Board was opening the matter of their middle school mascot, the R’s, up for public commentary. The sense was that the community strongly supported keeping the mascot and that it might be beneficial to have as many of us there as possible to share our thoughts. Of course, all of us prompted to the meeting shared the same, or similar, views: the mascot is racist and we want better for all of our children. Although the matter is of public record, as is the name of the community and school board, I don’t name the school or town where this occurred for two reasons. One, this is a common issue in both Canada and the U.S. and therefore is not a phenomenon unique to the institution or community and given my purpose is to share insight into the phenomena and not the community, naming is not necessary in this case. Two, because I employ quotes to reveal one angle of the discourse at the meeting, I don’t particularly want to deal with the hate of angry white people or Indians should they ever come across something that reflects the truth of their baggage, here. Again though, I imagine the quotes are typical responses and while the theme of blood quantum is unique to a U.S. discourse, I feel the arguments could be heard at any meeting of the same nature anywhere in Turtle Island (i.e. U.S. and Canada). The people speaking these ideas in this context or elsewhere are not the problem; the ideology that allows a space for arguing for or against the mascot to even exist, the ideology that fuels the arguments, and the arguments themselves are the problem.
There’s so much to process but what I’m overwhelmingly left with—even days after the meeting—is the way racism was rationalized by the community members. Rationalized with more racism. Bi-zarre. I replay it and shake my head. I don’t feel rage, anger, disappointment, shock, or grief, which are some of the emotional responses people typically feel when exposed to racism; that I typically feel, too. What I am left with however is the realization that, for a few hours, all of us present were saturated in a display of white privilege, entitlement, racism, and odd identity issues. Upon reflection, I can’t help but sense that all of it was propelled at its roots by white supremacy and/or admiration for/ acquiescence to the dominant culture. I felt the Chair did a good job in ensuring dynamics didn’t escalate however in retrospect, I wonder how and why they let the racist statements occur and didn’t shut them down. I guess, if an entire institution is allowed to symbolize and use R as a mascot, and if the (un)acceptability of this itself is opened up for debate by “leaders” (which is RIDICULOUS by the way), then why would people within that institution or community draw boundaries on other racist comments? As evidenced by the meeting itself, they wouldn’t.
The things said were so incredulous that even the most racist, made me laugh. That’s all I could do–laugh, chuckle, and shake my head. I think my response, which was a new one for me, had to do with the fact that I was being vigilant for signs of escalation that might lead to physical violence or threats. (I actually removed all the markers of Anishinaabe-ness from my vehicle before I went in to the school.) In this light, racist commentary was laughable in the face of my concern for potential physical aggression or threats. I think my fears, founded on experiences others have had around resisting Indian mascots, warped my experience of the racist commentary in the room. I’m grateful for my peers, who weren’t impervious to it and repeatedly expressed their outrage about the meeting and the media coverage of it afterwards. Their reactions prompt me to reflect on how my own constant anti-racist work, and my fear of racialized violence, may distort my experience of racist comments today and into the future. It seems it’s so normal, I’ve come to expect that the best case scenario is no physical violence, which is sad. Have I become insensitive or obtuse to it or have I just accepted that we are living in a world structured by racism (as one of several subjugating social processes) and so because it is inevitable, have I decided the best course is to prioritize self-preservation and choose humour over heightened blood pressure? In this case, it seems so.
Anyhow, the purpose of this post is sort of my own way to debrief but most importantly I want to document the bizarre and laughable arguments made in support of the R mascot at this school as a way to prepare others who may engage in getting rid Indian mascots in their community. We know there is a lot of work to do yet in this area. So, if you need that little something to launch you into a good cry read the following quoted recollections, some exaggerated. If you need some comic relief, they worked for me, maybe they’ll work for you. Mostly though, I share these so the bizarre-ness doesn’t take you off guard, when and if you find yourself in such a situation. I’m pretty sure, many of us have had, are having, or will have at some point in the future, the opportunity to respond to people or communities who have fierce love for Indian sports mascots. Maybe these quotes, culled from memory, will help prepare you for such an experience. With that, an R mascot tragicomedy, in quotes:
“I’ve lived here all my life and we’ve always enjoyed this mascot as long as we’ve had it. We can’t let a few bad apples ruin it for everybody. At some point somebody has got to stand up to these minorities and their complaining. I hope you have the courage to do it.”
“Everybody is going to be mad at us for something. The Indians will be mad at us for this just like I’m sure the colored’s are mad at us for slavery.”
“We’ve already lost our totem pole. We just lost our right to sing the tomahawk chant. What next? This is all we have left. The only symbol we have left. Are you going to take that away, too?”
“We’ve lost a lot, too. We just can’t lose anymore.”
“Our community has been through enough. If we lose this, it‘ll be too much.”
“I’m 1/235th Cherokee and I’ve gone to a pow-wow or two over there in [insert any city in Michigan] and my grandmother wah wah wah and I’m not offended by the R#$skins mascot.” I exaggerate with the 1/235th blood quantum; pretty sure it was 1/34567th Cherokee.
“I’m 1/18th Sioux and I’m not offended.”
“What will our children have to be proud of? They feel pride in their Indian ancestry when they see it.”
“Our boys! Our boys just love it out there on the field getting all pumped up for the games. You should see them! You should see their spirit. It’s gets them fired up to win. You can’t take it away from our boys.”
“I repeat, I’m 1/18th Sioux and I teach my children to see it in a positive light. The only reason you all see it as a bully thing is because that’s how you choose to look at it. You’re creating the problem when you choose to see it that way. If you would just stay positive and see it in a positive light, there would be no problem.”
^^^ Brilliant! This person has just solved all the problems of the world through advocating the powers of positive thinking AND they’ve identified the source of all the problems of the world: those of us who choose to see things negatively! Who would have thought?! And yet, despite the brilliance, people still felt the need to argue for the mascot…
“My wife is an Indian and she’s not offended.”
“Look, I’m not a racist. In fact, I just had a grandbaby born to our family who has Indian in him. I see nothing wrong with the mascot.”
“My wife’s an Indian and my two children are part Indian and they love the mascot. My sister in law is an Indian and once I talked to an Indian guy on the street and none of them is offended by the mascot.” Ok, I exaggerate. Buddy did not say he talked to an Indian on the street. But you get my drift.
“Listen, we don’t mean no harm by using this. We don’t mean to offend. It’s not our intent. Hell, my husband *puts her hand on her husbands back* is part Indian and he doesn’t have a problem with it.”
Note: Husband never moved or made a sound the whole time we were there.
“Look, I’m not a historian or a lawyer, I don’t have a degree in English but I’ll tell you this, I love our community and I think we need to bring this to an end. Let’s get rid of the mascot tonight and get rid of the Native history we teach in the school and nominate *points to old white guy in a wheelchair*. He’s a respected, known man in the community, has great values, loves this place and so let’s make him the mascot and call him a R#$skin. Let’s do that and get on to something that really matters, like literacy.”
^^ ??? Huh ??? ^^^
“Indians need to just get tough skin. Keep the mascot.”
“I used to be picked on when I was a kid in this community for being [insert Eastern European ethnicity] and that wasn’t nice. But that’s not what we’re doing here. This is not the same thing.”
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Which is obviously another way of saying, “Suck it up, buttercup. We want the R mascot to stay.”
“I’m 1/5th Indian and my kids are proud of our mascot.”
“I was walking down the hallway here at the school one day and my grandson seen me wearing my R#$skin shirt and he made a move to pull my jacket over it and said, ‘Cover that up don’t let anybody see!’ I mean look at what we’re doing to our kids. What are we teaching them?! I can’t even wear my shirt anymore!”
“I love my community, I love this school, and I love this mascot but you know with all this talk about getting rid of it, I’m starting to feel like a minority!”