Fuss over California school's Arab mascot prompts a wider debate | South China Morning Post
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Fuss over California school's Arab mascot prompts a wider debate

California school's snarling Arab prompts debate about image and offence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 5:25am

On game days in a California town named Thermal, where date farms and desert surroundings evoke the Middle East and nearby communities have names like Mecca and Oasis, fans cheer a high school team known as the Arabs.

A belly dancer jiggles on centre court. And a black-haired, moustached mascot wearing a head scarf rallies the crowd.

At least that's the way it was done for decades in the community 200 kilometres southeast of Los Angeles until Arab Americans recently objected to a hook-nosed, snarling image used to represent Coachella Valley High School.

The school has agreed to give the mascot a makeover, but not to drop the nickname.

"We're still going to stick with the Arab," said school board president Lowell Kemper after scores of residents defended the tradition dating back generations. "It's just a matter of whether we have a change in the caricature of the mascot."

It's a twist on a decades-old issue that has centred primarily on Native American mascots, logos and nicknames and has transformed Indians to Cardinals at Stanford University and Chieftains to Redhawks at Seattle University.

But the Arab debate spurs the same set of questions: is it possible to craft a mascot in the image of an ethnic group that doesn't offend, or are schools better off scrapping the idea altogether?

The debate comes as the more familiar Indian controversy has heated up.

Last year, Oregon's Board of Education decided to cut state funding to schools that fail to retire their Native American mascots, while Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 that forces schools to drop race-based mascots if a complaint is filed and the practice is found discriminatory.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said if he owned the National Football League's Washington Redskins he would consider altering the team's name, winning praise from Native American groups that have led rallies and run ads pushing for the change.

The American-Arab AntiDiscrimination Committee complained last month that the Coachella Valley mascot perpetuates negative stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans after one of its members raised questions about the image.

The move prompted a community-wide debate and the school district formed a committee to redesign the mascot in a more flattering light.

"When you get into trying to characterise any ethnic group, I think you're crossing into a danger zone, and you're bound to offend individuals," said Abed Ayoub, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's director of legal and policy affairs.

The mascot was chosen in the early 20th century and "never intended to dishonour or ridicule anyone", district superintendent Darryl Adams wrote in a letter to the local Desert Sun newspaper. Adams said the mascot was chosen in light of the region's production of crops common in the Middle East.

Coachella Valley isn't alone in invoking images of Arabs or Muslims. In the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, the high school football team, known as the Moors, features a caricature of a scowling, dark-skinned man with two swords on its Facebook page.

Yasmin Nouh, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in greater Los Angeles, said her group was going to speak to that school about making a change.

"Whether it is Arab, Norwegian, Greek or Moors, we believe ethnic or religious-based mascots are OK as long as they're portrayed in a respectful manner and don't reinforce negative stereotypes," Nouh said.

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