The SanityPrompt

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Ethnic Mascot Stories Get a New Twist

Michael Berube discusses the controversy over Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Illini on his blog this week. It's an interesting post and subsequent discussion.

Here's an excerpt:

"I saw the Chief in action precisely once. I attended a number of football and basketball games during my time at Illinois, but for one reason and another I did not see the halftime show until 1997. It was during a basketball game against Minnesota, and I was sitting with when pre-adolescent Nick and one of his friends, when suddenly a bunch of white folks in bright orange sweaters and T-shirts ran onto the court and took up positions on the perimeter, ringing the court in orange. As they clapped and smiled and bounced, on came the Chief himself. It was a profoundly cringe-inducing experience. The Chief’s supporters insist that his routine his “loosely patterned after Native American fancy dance”; now, I know even less about Native dance than I know about smooth jazz, but I am not aware of any indigenous dance forms that involve lots of splits and jumping and touching your toes in mid-air. I turned to Nick and said, “never mind the debate about whether the Chief is racist– this stuff should be banned for sheer cheesiness alone.” But I said it sotto voce.

"For as I watched and cringed and cringed some more, I noticed that sure enough, people around me were cheering and tearing up. And I began to think, this is as much a cultural divide as a political one, a divide between those with a liberal cringe reflex and those without. Surely, for my fellow Illinois fans, my visceral reaction to the Chief was just the mirror image of their visceral reaction to the Chief – except that mine was defined by what they would see as an elitist, nose-pinching, PC rectitude that symbolizes everything wrong with liberal college professors. I don’t have any problem with the name “Illini,” actually—or, for that matter, with the name “Illinois.” But the Chief and his halftime dance are another order of thing altogether. Please, I thought, let this hopping-and-skipping minstrel show end, and let’s get back to basketball. I didn’t come here to meditate on town and gown – or on what we’d now call blue and red America. I just came here to watch Illinois defeat the culturally innocuous, inoffensively-named Golden Rodents Of Some Kind.

I left a comment which I excerpt here:

I, like you, have never found myself roused to include the ethnic representation of school mascots among my list of ten thousand major injustices in the world. And I never thought much of the comparisons that the anti-chief forces would make when they asked, how would you like it if there were a team named the New York Jews? Well, low and behold, this week the New York Times told us about the Ajax soccer team in Amsterdam that for some reason is known as the Jews and whose fans think that they are honoring Jews. Hard to maintain that with a straight face though when you learn that opposing fans hiss like gas to chant against Ajax and Ajax fans hold up banners that read - Revenge for 1940-1945 at a match against a German team (me-thinks they seem to have a hard time comprehending the scale and duration of the Holocaust). Insisting that teams be named after animals is unlikely to soothe PETA. So maybe Harvard and Stanford are onto something and in the future all teams should be named after colors. At least until the anti-color defamation lobby galvanizes opposition to color stereotyping. But the economist in me wants to suggest that you are free to have any name and symbol you like, as long as you are willing to pay for it. If Sears, Kmart and Harvard can own their names, why can’t a tribe own it’s name and insist on being paid for the use of the name and associated logos and mascots? At least they could then name the price and the name certainly belongs more to actual descendants of the Illini than to alumni of the institution. Until then, Go BLUE. Go Red. Go Crimson!


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