Tuesday, September 15, 2009

cling to racist mascots

This guest post (which originally appeared at Sociological Images) is by Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of Sociology at Occidental College.

Angry Asian Man wrote about two East High Schools–in Rochester, New York and Akron, Ohio–with a peculiar mascot: the Orientals.

East High School merch (Rochester, New York):


Screen shot of the East High School website (Akron, Ohio):


Notice the Asian-y font and the stylistic dragon.

When high schools and sports teams recruit a type of person as a mascot, it objectifies and caricatures them. It also encourages opposing teams to say things like “Kill the Orientals.” This can only be okay when we aren’t really thinking about these kinds of people as real humans beings.

This reminded me: As an undergraduate, I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Our mascot was the Gaucho, which I remember being described as a Mexican cowboy (though South American cowboy may be more descriptive). I went by the UCSB website and found these two logos. There is a story about the first identifying it as a brand new logo; the second is for kids:



I am troubled by the Gaucho mascot for the same reasons that I don’t like the Orientals mascot, but at least authentic gauchos are not likely to enroll at UCSB the way that “Orientals” are likely students of the East High Schools.

Then again, this is the image on the front page of the UCSB athlectics website:


It does indeed read: “GLORY. HONOR. COURAGE. TORTILLAS.” This seems to invalidate any argument that the use of the Gaucho mascot is “respectful.”

Thinking about the Orientals and the Gauchos, alongside the many American Indian mascots still found in the U.S., Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and the soccer team in the Netherlands who call themselves the Jews, may give us some perspective on this mascot phenomenon that thinking about them one at a time doesn’t.

If we feel that one of these mascots is less discriminatory than another, what drives that feeling? And is it logical? Or does it stem from a trained sensibility that isn’t applied to all marginalized groups across the board? Or is it in response to different characteristics of these different groups? Or different contexts?

Maybe all five mascots are equally offensive and offensive for the same reasons. But thinking about them together may also be useful for teasing out how, exactly, they are offensive. What do you think?


  1. Exactly how they're offensive? I think they're offensive and racist because they recirculate and reinforce stereotypes and outmoded, baggage-laden terminology based on racial minorities.

    Until just recently, a high school in a town nearby had this for its team names (complete with cartoonish mascot): The Chinks. "Cling" is the right word. People their clung to that "venerable tradition" like crazy. I'm still wondering about what really motivated that clinging resistance to change.

  2. People are pretty attached to their mascots and usually insist they are actually a sign of respect no matter how obviously racist that seem. As you describe - this is one area where the "white equivalent" or at least the "group of people" as mascot argument comes up - and it's not limited to the Fighting Irish. There's also 76ers, 49ers, Steelers, Miners, Patriots, Trojans, Cowboys, Vikings, etc. The argument being that if these mascots can be used as a sign of strength and teamwork, then why should anyone be offended if I use Chief for the same purpose?

    I look forward to seeing more comments because people can be tough nuts to crack on this topic.

  3. I was just reading yesterday that there are several Native Americans who have been mounting a legal challenge to the Washington Redskins. I can't elaborate on the legal nature of the case, but I will say that (as a DC resident and as a human being) it stuns me continuously that there is a sports team with a mascot that is worse than an offensive anachronism; it is a degrading epithet from a genocidal era in American history.

    And to anyone that objects to changing the mascot of a well known team, I say, c'mon! To give two examples, Stanford University and the Washington Wizards both did it, and the sky didn't fall for either of them. It's time for the name Redskins to be permanently retired.

  4. this is one area where the "white equivalent" or at least the "group of people" as mascot argument comes up

    I think it's also a place where the response "There are some things you can do with traditionally-white group that you Just. Can't. Do. with people of other races. Whiteness is considered "neutral," so any bad associations of a nickname aren't reflected onto white people as a whole and, thus, as individuals. I mean, until I read GDS's comment, I had never thought of 'Steelers' as representing a specific, historical group of people, despite the fact that a good one half of my family heritage is in the steel/coal industry. But Redskins, Illini, or Braves *instantly* say to me actual people.

    As for whether it is racist? Look no farther than the Redskins logo.

  5. My high school had the Apaches as a mascot. This was complete with a cartoonish Apache Joe which they got rid of some time before I attended school there.

    While I was there, the issue of changing the mascot was brought up. Some were for, some were against. Many clung to traditions. The administration then organized a group consisting of teachers, students, and administrators to visit the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona to bring the issue up with them. They visited a high school while they were there and the students were against my high school keeping the mascot. The administrators thought they had their decision then, but before they left, one of the parents said that this decision should really be up to the White Mountain Apache tribe council. So they went to them, who as they had hoped saw this as an opportunity to cross cultural divides and increase understanding of Native American culture.

    My high school still has the Apaches as a mascot, but with the counsel of the White Mountain Apache tribe, the appearance of the mascot in terms of our marching band as "princess" were more accurate representations. Rather than full headdresses, they wore a headband with one feather as was more typical. They began organizing cultural events and invited the members of the tribe to campus.

    I don't know how I feel about them having kept the mascot. Should I still be offended by the mascot if there were an attempt at an accurate representation and understanding? Should I be less offended? I think I would've liked to have seen the same sort of cultural bridging even without having to keep the mascot, but I don't know that I have quite verbalized what it is about the mascot that I find offensive and whether my high school has addressed it.

  6. I'm half Argentine and I was totally not offended by the Gaucho mascot... then I read tortillas and that all changed.

    Tortillas are not Southern South American.

  7. This isn't really a mascot thing but some certain people must really get a lot sleepness nights over the Oriental Trading Company.

    They've been in business since 1932, have around fifteen million customers and are in the heart of white America! How racist!

  8. @cL:

    It sounds like there was something of an agreement struck to please folks on both sides of the issue. Further, the solution doesn't sound too bad since the controversy surrounding the mascot turned into something constructive that can bridge cultural gaps and help to cure some of the (I assume mostly white) ignorance.

    As a native of Northeast Ohio, I would love to see the city of Cleveland do something similar. The Chief Wahoo mascot isn't as bad as some in this country, but it's still repulsive. But there's something to be said for brand recognition; after all, the team was one of the best in baseball in the 90s (and eventually we'll win the World Series again! In my lifetime, I hope...) If the team actively sought to engage fans and the city in constructive dialogue about racism and Indian cultures, I would be much more comfortable with the name.

    But then again, does that solution turn Indian cultures into some kind of history lesson? Something to be admired by white folks when they come painted in red and white to scream, "Go Tribe!?" I think this is where you're wondering if the best solution would actually have been to change the mascot; the solution used may backfire into creating a stronger sense of "otherness" about Apaches (in your case.)

    Besides, it's not like team names never change. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the "Devil" in their team name to reinvent themselves. Maybe that's what Cleveland needs to have a winning season!

  9. I agree with Lisa, you can't distinguish one equally offensive logo from the rest.

    A black nappy headed cartoon faced mascot named the "N-word" wouldn't fly in this country, and I don't see why these similarly stereotypical logos should either.

  10. People cling to their racist mascots because they don't want to admit that they have been part of something offensive. Admitting that the Washington Redskins logo is racist requires that you are have supported racism. Lots of people aren't ready to do that.

    For me, a big difference between the Steelers, the Vikings, the Packers, and even perhaps the Fighting Irish is that the dominant group picked something from their culture. They weren't appropriating anyone else's culture.

    As for the Wizards changing their name, I know that there were African American groups in DC that opposed that choice because they felt "Wizards" had Klan associations.

  11. Well this is not about mascots but....

    I was pretty offended when I first encountered the All Whites soccer team. And then I discovered the All Blacks... both teams are from New Zealand, and the names refer to the colour of their uniforms not their skin. Still, the names bother me.

  12. First and foremost, I love you and your blog. Promptly adding to my blogroll. :)

    Second, I went to a high school of about 700 kids which was pretty monochromatic (a few Hispanic and Asian kids-- by a few I mean probably under 20). Our mascot was a Redskin. About 5 years ago, someone told them to change it (no sh*t) and they're now the Redhawks. You cannot BELIEVE the clingers even still. When I go back home, there are "Redskins Forever" signs up in people's lawns. WTF. I suspect these are the same people who think the Confederate flag was simply a sign of solidarity of the southern states.

  13. Dartmouth College has no official mascot yet its unofficial mascot is the Indians. An extremely right wing, racist student group The Dartmouth Review (Dinesh D'Souza was a founder) promotes and makes products using the Indian mascot bespite Dartmouth's American Indian's community's very vocal criticism as a purposeful racist assault under the guise of "tradition" "its all in good fun" "free speech" "resisting PC" etc.

  14. Lanzador D. TortillasJanuary 18, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    A very quick Google search for the words "UCSB" and "tortillas" brought up this Wikipedia article:


    An excerpt from this article:

    'In the early 1990s, it became customary for the students to toss tortillas onto the court like frisbees after the first UCSB basket of the game. The team would then be assessed a technical foul for delay of game while the tortillas were cleaned up, which became infamously known as the "Tortilla Technical." Despite continued pleading from the players and coaches to stop the practice, students continued the behavior.

    'During a game televised by ESPN, tortilla fragments got into one of ESPN's professional video cameras. The school had to purchase a replacement for the network. The school established a policy of searching students for tortillas as they entered the arena and eventually the novelty wore off. While the tortillas have stopped flying at The Thunderdome, raucous students have brought the practice to Harder Stadium, home of the 2006 NCAA champion UC Santa Barbara Gauchos men's soccer team where no such penalties are enforced.'

    This explains the reference to "tortillas" in the UCSB soccer poster. I suspect that the UCSB students who first used tortillas as projectiles in the 1990s were motivated primarily by their low cost, portability, and Frisbee-like aerodynamics.

    I note that Professor Wade graduated from UCSB in 1996 (http://departments.oxy.edu/sociology/Wade%20cv.htm), during the years that the tortilla-throwing fad was going on and was being reported in the UCSB student newspaper. Perhaps she had forgotten the history of the tortilla throwers when she wrote this piece.

    The following piece from the Santa Barbara Independent is also of interest:


  15. isolated in the midwestJanuary 19, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    This isn't about mascots, either, but it's along the same lines: vehicles named after actual people, e.g., Cherokee and Tuareg. I'm not as well-versed as many of the commenters I've read on this blog but I have to say, as an African, seeing people commodified in such a manner deeply offends me (as the POC-used-as-mascots also do).

  16. Down in my area, Pompano High was called the Bean Pickers. They're the Golden Tornadoes now. When they were doing renovations at the school, they knocked down a wall and revealed the old mascot: A big, smiling Sambo-esque "bean picker." At least they had the decency to change it. Too bad other places can't figure out how to follow suit.

  17. The author is a disgrace for calling the Gauchos "Mexican cowboys", they are Argentinian cowboys, you went to school there YOU SHOULD KNOW. The terms are not interchangeable.

    The "GLORY.HONOR.COURAGE.TORTILLAS" is the logo for the Soccer shirts. It is a tradition for UCSB students to throw tortillas when a goal is score. I do not associate the tortillas with Argentinian culture, nor does anyone else. It is an honor to call yourself a Gaucho and the name sparks pride in my heart.

    We do not use it to represent ourselves as a particular group of people, but more so for school pride. If the school mascot was a piece a paper, I would still have the same amount of pride for UCSB.

    If you start looking at mascots as an indication of what the school is like, then what kind of person would you be?

    All mascots, at the core, are the same, they represent a school as a whole. It should not be seen as a connection to whatever that mascot is. It is just a representation.

    Tortillas are not allowed to be thrown on the fields for Soccer anymore, but of course die hard fans are going to find a way to sneak them in. It is the ultimate form of celebration for us.

    Have you guys ever been under a shower of tortillas? It is a beautiful sight to see.

  18. I love these dumbshits who start babbling about how it's a tradition and a culture thing and it's respectful and has nothing to do with anyone's culture and anyone who's insulted is just oversensitive anyway. When you find yourself resorting to arguments once used to justify the institution of slavery, it's definitely time to step back and think about what you're saying and why, not to mention how.

    And speaking of justifying the institution of slavery: All this and nobody thinks to mention my hometown school with its nickname "Ole Miss" and its (former) mascot, Johnny Reb? Considering that it wasn't until around 1995 that the University of Mississippi finally got around to prohibiting football fans from bringing Confederate battle standards to games, I'm really surprised that school didn't make the list.


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