Racist mascots have been a topic of intense discussion in the last year. Issues have ranged from a federal judge ordering the cancellation of the trademark registration for the NFL team the Washington Redskins this July, to the discussion this past semester about Amherst’s own Lord Jeff and the implications of having a murderous purveyor of germ warfare against native populations as our mascot. These two examples actually have different implications – the former in perpetuating stereotypes about populations deriving no benefit from the use of their imagery, and the latter in supporting the actions of an individual responsible for not only perpetuating racism in America through social practices, but in fact supported eliminating native populations from the country. However, no matter the implications of specific mascots, it is clear that people are no longer willing to put up with mascots that are racist and/or support racism anymore. In fact, so strong is the sentiment, that the athletic equipment company Adidas is pushing to end Native American mascots in high schools across the United States by providing funding for the change to any schools that want to get rid of their original mascots, and providing access to the Adidas design team to aid in creating a new, more culturally proficient mascot, replacing inappropriate example like the ones shown below:
To be clear, I am in full support of removing all racist and exploitative mascots from all sports teams and other organizations that use them, tomorrow, with no further reason than that they are racist and exploitative, and that that is simply inappropriate. Period. However, it is still well worth examining why exactly mascots are in fact such a big deal to people. On the side of keeping the Lord Jeff, people have made the argument that Jeffry Amherst is nothing but a symbol, and most symbols of any staying power have some negative history, like the American flag for instance. One of the previous posts on this blog discussed the fact that erasing the Lord Jeff as our unofficial mascot in no way erases his damaging history, nor the implication of naming the town, and in a way by extension the college, after him.
Despite critiques of the purpose behind, and effectiveness of, removing mascots that are racist or support racism, I would argue that this is still a fight worth fighting, and that actions like the ones like Adidas took to replace certain mascots should be supported and continued. This is because, in my opinion, mascots and similar symbols take on a cultural role similar to that of comedy that we have discussed in class in either smoothing over or worsening the hurtful effects of racism without asking people to engage in a serious debate about actual race issues. People do not support sports teams because they support the entire history behind the mascot; they do so because, like laughter in works of comedy, sports are a community activity, meant for group participation that requires less thinking than a set of expected reactions. This opens the door for stereotypes in a way that makes it all the more important that the ideas that slip in unnoticed do not continue to support harmful ideas. This won’t fix all problems at one, but it is a step (or throw or kick or shot) in the right direction.