Mary Annette Pember
The men were white and mostly over 35 years old. Some were burly, no nonsense guys, but when they approached the microphone to speak of their love and support of the "R word," the Anderson high school mascot, their lower lips quivered; some openly wept.
“This is about a whole lot more than keeping a Native American high school mascot,” I thought to myself.
I realized I was witnessing the public defense of one of the remaining bastions of white male hegemony in America.
Community members here in Anderson Township, a mostly white, politically conservative suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, have been defending the use of the R word as mascot for Anderson High School against periodic calls for change for the past 20 years. The most recent challenge was spurred by the Cleveland Indians January 2018 decision to discontinue use of the Chief Wahoo logo. In response to community members claim that the school’s logo is racist as well as questions from the outside world about the district’s plans, the Forest Hills School board formed a committee to study the issue and make recommendations. In the end, committee members decided not to decide; after months of emotionally charged public meetings and testimony, committee members announced that they had no recommendation. So, the Native American caricature and the R Word remains deeply embedded in the school’s brand, a part of all things relating to Anderson High School including athletics and educational curriculum materials.
Initially, I was a bit surprised by the “keepers” angry, emotional outbursts as well as their unified outrage against an enemy I failed to recognize. They created t-shirts urging school administrators to “Save Our Skins.” Tirelessly, they attended tedious school board meetings, shouting down both board members and neighbors who suggested it might be time to change the mascot. They labeled folks in favor of change as, “politically correct bullies,” and insisted that the use of the R-word is a means to honor Native peoples. The “changers” myself included, sat quietly at the meetings, bewildered and amazed at the outpouring of anger. We had innocently wandered into a war that went far beyond the use of an offensive mascot.
Keeping the R word is a line in the sand of fear among some white folks. Their world is changing. No longer can they rely on what Ta-Nehisi Coates describes as the “passive power of whiteness” to insulate them from the uncomfortable truths and history that created their unquestioned hegemony. They find themselves adrift in a world where they are no longer guaranteed places at the top of America’s demographic and socioeconomic heaps.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s population is growing more racially diverse. National Public Radio reported that by 2020, more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.
The growing brown population is challenging the overt and not so overt trappings of racism such as language. Teasing out, describing and naming the casual, unexamined social norms of white entitlement that have diminished and shamed people of color for so long is deeply unsettling for many white folks. They are afraid. Desperate for a peg on which to hang their ill defined fear, they eagerly focus on anyone who presents an identifiable challenge to their customs.
I noted many of the keeper’s sported President Trump’s campaign phrases, “Make America Great Again,” on their vehicles or clothing. The phrase is a rallying cry for the fearful, permission to actively reclaim the benefits of America’s racist past in which white entitlement to language was blissfully unexamined.
The white allies who had bravely challenged the mascot were crushed by the committee’s announcement. They had worked hard to educate neighbors on the history of the term R Word. They made and wore buttons that read “Words Matter “and tirelessly attended school board meetings, organized pot lucks and gatherings in efforts to build alliances among a fractured community. They even raised over $10k via crowd funding in response to keeper complaints that changing the mascot would be too costly. According to organizers the funds will be held in trust until the mascot is changed. In the process, some made enemies of long time friends and neighbors.
Although I sympathize with their disappointment, I also thought, “Welcome to my world.”
The allies gained a first hand experience with the multi-layered, nuanced face of racism. That first experience is something one never forgets; it changes everything. One must decide how to proceed, how to live in such a world.
When the Forest Hills School board committee members announced that they had no recommendation for either keeping or changing the R-Word mascot, my family and I were far away. We were home in Ojibwe country at a language and cultural immersion camp on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota.
We went home because I knew we’d need to go. Here is an excerpt from a letter I posted on community social media a few months ago.
Shortly after we moved here 20 years ago, the community became involved in a public discussion about the appropriateness of the Anderson High School Redskins sports mascot. I wrote a letter to the Forest Hills Journal expressing my opinion, as a Native mother, that the mascot was not appropriate.
We were a bit surprised at some folks’ reactions. I received many anonymous, threatening phone calls. Our home was vandalized. This went on for a couple of years before folks grew weary of our refusal to engage with this behavior. As my mother taught me and her mother taught her, we simply ignored these petty micro-aggressions that are part of life for people of color in this country. We are adept at doing so in order to survive.
We know who we are; we have our language, culture, songs and dances to sustain us. These ancestral gifts far outweigh the power of erratic middle class American whims.
If the community chooses to continue to embrace the mascot, one that many other communities have abandoned in favor of more inclusive, informed celebrations of athletics, so be it. We will continue to ignore supporters’ insistence that the mascot honors Native people. We are not feeling the honor at my house; an expression of esteem is only valid if the recipient embraces it. The honoring argument often reminds me of how my father might have responded; don’t urinate down my back and try to claim it’s raining.
So, I danced. Ivy Vainio, well-known Ojibwe photographer, posted a photo of me in the round dance line at the Kiwenz Language and Cultural Immersion Camp. Despite my bad old lady knee, my arms are bent as I scrub with abandon. It was the best and only medicine.
Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is a journalist living in Anderson Township, Ohio.