Talk of Tradition Ignores Real People Behind Mascots

(A note on caricature: Part I) Imagine growing up in a society where you are constantly told—via a barrage of media/advertising—that you are ignorant and unattractive, and thereby deserving of stereotyping, derision and ridicule. Nor is there anything you can do to change the perception of others, thanks again to the help of said media, and that by your very nature you are deficient, and predisposed to inferiority. Your thoughts and feelings, therefore, aren’t important.

After years of hearing these kinds of messages and seeing grotesque, exaggerated images of your likeness over and over again in the form of TV, movies, music and marketing to reinforce the idea that you have very little to contribute, what effect would this have on your psychological sense of health and well-being?

What I’ve just described might sound extreme. Unfortunately, it is an accurate characterization of what many people in this country have faced over the course of hundreds of years. Whether we are talking about gender, sexuality, ethnicity or skin color, to name a few, many of us have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of seeing unflattering and falsely represented versions of ourselves being peddled to the public for mass consumption. We are told, along with everyone else, that the way we are being portrayed is reality.

But in a broader sense, feelings of inadequacy are simply part of the human condition. As much as we might try to shield ourselves from negative words and images, none of us are completely immune to the subtle or overt messages that are drummed into our heads.

So, given the extent to which we can all identify with how bad it feels to be misrepresented, especially when it comes to the characteristics we cannot change about ourselves, I always find it difficult to understand why the debates regarding racist caricatures (that is, images that negatively portray a given group of people) deteriorate into the standard arguments about the importance of tradition, as though tradition, in and of itself, is reason enough to continue doing something the way it’s always been done.

I haven’t been paying close attention to the debate regarding the Goshen High School “Redskins” mascot, or the controversy over the statue that was removed and then subsequently put back for commencement. However, the comments and questions surrounding the issue are familiar. (The same debate took place while I was a student at Bethany Christian High School.) And having grown up in this area, there’s a degree to which I understand both sides of the conversation.

However, the “real issue,” which is much broader and non-political, inevitably gets lost as the discussion becomes more heated. Specific mascots and caricatures aside, we are talking first and foremost about the inherent humanity of all people. Since when is expressing tolerance and civility toward others tied to political ideology? Why is showing respect for someone else’s culture—a culture which has historically been denigrated--such a seemingly unreasonable request? And why are those who dare to stand up for themselves and others chided, disregarded and accused of being overly sensitive? Why does tradition trump the desire to be represented in a dignified manner?

We also fail to see the bigger picture when it comes to how and why these negative caricatures are used; whether they come in the form of mascots or trademarks, they are heavily utilized in the advertising products and sports teams alike. In other words, they become a way for organizations and companies to make money.

I’m not opposed to the use of the Aunt Jemima trademark solely because of its problematic origins; I’m opposed to the use of the Aunt Jemima trademark because the R.T. Davis Mill Company and the Quaker Oats Company have profited off of the negative caricature of a black woman for hundreds of years. The fact that Quaker Oats has given her a variety of makeovers over the years to make her more palatable to the public is even more infuriating.

So when we have a discussion about these specific kinds of images, which we already know have been used as propaganda to perpetuate negative attitudes about certain groups of people, we must also be mindful of how much profit has been made in the advancement of such harmful and dehumanizing stereotypes.

I would hope that anyone participating in any debate about the use of Native American mascots would be mindful of the fact that in talking about seemingly innocuous, inanimate objects and images, we are actually talking about people. Living, breathing people. And just as we all desire to be treated respectfully, in a way that makes us feel valued, we must extend that respect to others.