Dec 13, 2015 - “This is who we are” by Summer Wesley
It’s really not surprising that, on December 10, 2015, the school board of McLoud, Oklahoma voted to maintain their racist mascot. All of the usual arguments were made, in support of keeping the R word: “It’s an honor”, tearful pleas of “We’ve been the R** for generations”, and, my favorite, “It’s who we are”. The latter is by far the most accurate and telling. Put simply, the events during the McLoud meeting was not only a by-product of American history, but an indictment of it.
The reality is that, even in 2015, it is possible to have a racial slur against Natives, as a mascot, when it would clearly not be tolerated if directed at another group. For the record, I believe residents of this town, and others, when they say that they aren’t aware of problems stemming from their mascots. When something has been around for a long period of time, people tend to not question it, particularly if they are not the target of the hostility. In this case, and others, even members of the Native community defended it, most likely because these stereotyped images of us, despite being inaccurate and frequently offensive, are often our only representation in the mainstream. However, racist mascots cause actual harm and, when people learn better, they have a responsibility to do better.
A decade ago, the American Psychological Association called for “immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations . . . based on a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people. Research has shown that the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities has a negative effect on not only American Indians students but all students . . .” (Summary of the APA Resolution Recommending Retirement of American Indian Mascots, 2005). So, asking whether or not to change such mascots is the wrong question. The real question is “why has it taken so long to do so?”
Understandably, studies can seem distant and lacking relevance, even for school administrators, who are presumably educated to understand such things. However, what is not distant is the conduct taking place in their school, on a daily basis, as well as the blatant hostility and disrespect that was exhibited in their chambers.
Despite statements from school staff outlining harassment and bullying of students, community and board members continually made statements that such incidents don’t happen. A representative from Native American Guardians Association, a group whose members are infamous in Native circle for harassment and threats against Native leaders like Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse, was applauded for telling Natives “R*dskins is who you are and you should be proud of it.” Quite frankly, I’ve never heard a racial slur uttered so many times in such a short span, as I did during that board meeting.
The most disturbing and misconstrued part of the evening, though, came when a teenage girl spoke about the racist history of the R word, as well as racial harassment that she had experienced in her school. Local media characterized her as an emotional child who broke down and stormed away from the podium, failing to explain the much more insidious elements of the situation. (KFOR, 2015)
Numerous speakers went over the extremely limiting two minute time frame, throughout the meeting. One after another, as mascot supporters concluded their thoughts, after their time had elapsed, the room sat quietly, listening respectfully. Admittedly, I was the first of those who was speaking against the mascot, to exceed my time. When I heard the tap on the microphone, which signaled the end of the two minutes, I quickly completed the sentence that I had already started, despite being shouted at by a large man, exceeding the time by a matter of seconds.
The next speaker, Sarah Adams-Cornell, had the same experience. When her time elapsed, she was taking a few seconds to complete the sentence she had already begun, just as all previous speakers had prior, and as any reasonable person would expect. This time, however, others joined the man in the shouting at her. To which, Sarah took a deep breath and commented to the board that the “the disrespect in this room is astounding”, signaling them to maintain order; a request they ignored, as the crowd began, once again, shouting , as Sarah took her seat.
Despite this hostile atmosphere, this courageously 14 year old girl, took the microphone, to explain what it is like to be a Native student in a school with a racist mascot. She bravely told them about harassment, despite her voice shaking. When speaking about the killing of Native men, women, and children, and the selling of their scalps (known as r*dskins), she became emotional and had to stop for a moment to compose herself. Because of this pause, her time ran out, but she tried to conclude her thought, just as the many of adults who spoke prior to her had.
However, adults in the crowd began shouting at her, just as they had us, prior. She courageously told them “I’m almost finished”, to which someone in the crowd shouted “Get off the stage, squ*w!” Understandably upset at being called the worst vulgarity that can be directed towards a Native women, she expressed her disgust at the barbaric behavior and returned to her seat, as the crowd yelled “Go, R*dskins!” at her.
So, yes, she did become emotional and stormed off, for which she personally apologized to each board member. However, as a Native women, I think that her response showed a great deal of restraint and grace, considering the verbal assault that she had just been subjected to. That the board would tolerate such verbal violence in their presence, and still characterize keeping the very mascot that embodies and encourages such racism as an “ethical” choice, gives me grave concerns for the safety and welfare of Native children in their district.
You see, the emotional pleas from mascot supporters who tearfully said “it’s more than a mascot” are absolutely correct. It is more than a mascot. It is evidence of a much deeper problem that continues to divide our communities, and plague our future generations. When towns like McLoud, and many others, are presented evidence of the harms, yet take the stand that “this is who we are”, embracing the racism and accepting the resulting victimization of members of their community, the impact is not limited to only their closed minded communities. We all have to interact in this world with the generations who are reared in that environment. Racism and division hurt us all.
It is time we all take a stand and look for ways to fight racism and microaggressions, wherever they are found. Striving to make this world a better place is our obligation, as humans, and the rent we all owe for existing on this planet. My sincere hope is that students and their families will feel empowered to fight back against the hostile learning environment created by having racist mascots in their schools, and will file grievances for violation of nondiscrimination policies, as well as complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, if schools fail to act. When they do come forward, we, as members of the larger community have an obligation to be there to support them in whatever way possible. Children matter. We should all be working for their best interest by striving for a less racist, more inclusive, peaceful world, even when letting go of our “traditions” is temporarily painful.
Summer Wesley is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a tribal attorney.