Somebody at a talk I was giving once said to me "the name is bad. I get the name thing. Nobody wants to be called that kind of name. But the mascots. Mascots make us feel really good about our teams. Mascots are a source of pride."
And then they waited for a response.
I smiled. "Sure," I said. "Some mascots may be a source of pride. And some mascots may be a source of many questions. But Native mascots do not make people feel a great sense of pride, they mostly just confirm that we are still comfortable with racist caricatures and that when we normalize them and say they are harmless, that just allows these images to keep saying 'ha ha, we think of your group as something beneath us.'"
"How so?" And this person was generally interested.
"Well," I said. "Let me tell you about this exercise I sometimes do in my classes..."
In Which I Show How Racist Chief Wahoo Really Is or Adventures In Teaching About Mascots
In my classes we often talk about mascots and imagery and representation. I assign students articles like this one, this one, and this one. And they usually watch a video about the personal nature of the mascot debate that happened at Stanford University (featuring my Mama). As part of our class lecture I feature a portion where we talk about stereotypical/racist imagery and discuss how to critically analyze this imagery for the story it is trying to tell. I'm trying to get students to understand that it is not just what the image looks like but also the argument that the image is trying to make. What is the story that you walk away with? What is the message that the image is trying to send?
I am often surprised at the visceral response that student’s have to racist portrayals of other cultures and it takes me a moment not to second guess my process of confronting them with these racist images as a way to show them how desensitized they are to racist portrayals of Native people. I can tell many of them are uncomfortable, very uncomfortable actually. They whisper to each other trying to figure out what my angle is and more than one often give me the side eye. I’m guessing they are convinced that my use of certain cartoons is some sort of tacit approval of the cartoon. I can see their heads spinning -- who googles stuff like that? And what does one have to google to find such a derogatory, ignorant cartoon for use in a class? Is this how she spends her spare time?
Turns out – “racist Asian caricature” will work just fine.
I wanted to find caricatures that were reminiscent of Chief Wahoo to lead them to the point where they can start to recognize how this "othering” of people in our cultural imagination is played out in popular stereotypes. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten the question “aren’t some stereotypes true?” And my favorite answer is “does it matter?” Stereotypes are built on a foundation of lies, half truths, biased interpretations etc. meant to support and justify colonial occupation. Stereotypes are there to influence how we see the world so that we are okay with what our settler-colonial state did to formulate this world.
If settler colonialism is the dark side, then stereotypes are the red light-saber. Also, Dan Snyder is General whatever that guy’s name was who was a general and had some dying heart and was actually a robot and Fox News is the Empire which would make Bill O’Reilly some kind of Darth something (Maul? Sidious?) but I really don’t want to give him that sort of satisfaction.
The first time I did this exercise in my class was one of the most illuminating.
Many of the students laughed uncomfortably at the ridiculousness of the portrayals in the cartoons. Once we started talking about them, it was hard for them to put in to words, or rather to want to say out loud what stereotypes were included in the pictures. I asked many questions – “How do you know the person is a certain ethnic background? What makes you think that? What about them is exaggerated? What’s the point of the cartoon? What are they trying to say about these people?”
And it was so fascinating to me to watch how many of the students were visibly uncomfortable with the image remaining on the screen as we talked about it. I could see some of them recoiling in their chairs and it sort of hit me how uncomfortable it was for them to see this kind of racist imagery because they are able to live in a world where they don’t have to see it if they really don’t want to. I know this type of imagery exists around us in various ways. Katie Perry as a Geisha, black face at Halloween parties on college campuses, but really… in a singular world where you hang out with your friends and check out their Instagrams, well that’s the privilege… the privilege of feeling like this type of overt, confrontational racism isn’t tangible and definitely isn’t socially acceptable. Unless your teacher puts it up as some cartoons as part of a class lecture…
I kept wanting to tell them “this discomfort. This physical reaction, this disgust, this head-shakingly bad taste in your mouth… remember that.” Because as we made our list of what these images confronted us with I was readying them for the blow. Here’s their list of what these images were all about according to my class:
That was their list! I was amazed… When I would flip to the next image they would shake their heads again. Some of them would sink down in their chair. One whispered “she knows these are awful right? Just plain awful…” And I would try to continue. Tell me what story this image is telling you. Tell me how this dehumanizes the person. Tell me which features are exaggerated and why. What story is this image trying to tell you about this person?
Finally I asked them to consider all the ways they were uncomfortable. I asked them to reflect for a moment on their visceral reactions. I said “think about these images and how having them here, on this screen, in your classroom… made you wonder if I was crazy because why would anyone want to call attention to images like this. And then look at this…”
And let's compare.
What’s the same about them?
My students replied: The crazy skin color. The exaggerated features, large mouth, large teeth. The sort of dumb look on their faces, like they are so stupid they don’t even know they are a racist caricature. The stereotypes, what they wear, how they dress, how their faces look.
And then I said "What's the story?"
One of the students replied. "It's that they are too dumb. They are dumb and okay with however we want to treat them. They go along with it. And we can laugh at them and use them the way we want to."
I immediately wondered if it was too heavy handed and if confronting them with incredibly racist and derogatory images would negate the message because they would spend most of their time personally reacting. Part of me wanted to say “it’s not fun is it? It’s not fun, or funny to be confronted with imagery that demeans you. It either demeans you by its portrayal of what may be your culture, or it demeans you by confronting you with stereotypes that you know all too well. Because the image would mean nothing if the stereotypes weren’t ingrained in us… this is what society gives to us. And think about what it means that our starting images caused a stir in the classroom but what would have happened if I had started with Chief Wahoo, something you can see on television today, something that is just a “normal” part of sports… you can go out to a store right now and buy a shirt, pants, posters, keychains and more with him on it. And then think about what it means that we are desensitized to the visceral nature of this image, what does that mean for Native people – but also, what does that mean for everyone else?”
Do I think everyone walked away believing my hype? Maybe. Probably not. If I have taught them anything it is to question everything and to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. But I do think there was kind of a safety-net that had been cast away from those “other” pictures, the ones that had made them squirm in their seats, the ones they didn’t really want to talk about. We ended the class with pictures that Native people posted declaring themselves #NotYourMascot. And I wondered which images they would carry with them as they left class.
I don't want to be an Indigenous Debbie Downer (okay yes I do. I do it a lot anyway. "Hey I love this music video..." "Sure, except it's racist." "Hey I can't wait for the Oscars." "Sure, except they are celebrating a film that is basically a white savior movie for Indigenous peoples or #DancesWithBears) but it's not just the name that we are talking about when we say #NotYourMascot
We are talking about how inundated we are with images of Native people as red faced, dopey, savage, creatures. That's what is all over our television and movie screens. I promise one day your grandchildren will be searching on their tiny watch phones while riding their (not going to set your house on fire) hoverboard and they will go "Grandpa, did you guys really have this picture of Native people as part of your sports teams and people would like wear it around and put it on the bumpers of their non-electric cars and everything?"
And you will have to be like "um. Yeah. Kind of." And they will give you the exact look my students give me when I put up some racist imagery, the one that says "This is bad. This is so bad. This is a joke. It's not funny."
It's not funny.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, volunteer Executive Director for the Native Women's Collective and is currently re-watching My Name is Earl...
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