Thursday, March 14, 2013

Willful and Unintentional Racism and Ignorance at the University of Illinois

It is no surprise to anyone that a majority of UIUC students voted yes last week "in support of Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."

The outcome of the vote reflects the lack of leadership at the university. When the mascot ("symbol" if you prefer) was retired in 2007, the university failed to fully address the ignorance that kept it in place for so long.

Instead of calling it a race-based or racist or stereotypical mascot, they blamed the NCAA for its end, saying they were ending it due to the NCAA policy about these mascots.

Instead of instituting broad campus-based educational efforts to help students and alums learn what is wrong with such mascots, they did nothing.

Instead of making a clean break with it, they let it live on in the hearts and minds of students and alums by way of the "Three In One..."

Pre 2007, when the mascot danced, it did so to a piece of music called the "Three In One." It has Hollywood "Indian" music that people mistakenly associate with American Indians. Post-retirement, that music was/is still played at halftime of basketball and football games. Fans solemnly rise when that music starts, and they cross their arms in front of them like the mascot did,

and they imagine the mascot doing its dance on the court/field. As with the mascot, they speak of how this behavior "honors" American Indians. Someday, some of them will look back on all of this, and feel a bit embarrassed.

Students and alum ought to feel indignant that an institution of higher learning allowed/allows ignorance to go unchecked. I believe the people who created that mascot meant well. I believe they and most of those who embrace that mascot today really mean to honor American Indians, but the way they're doing it is wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the two tribal nations the pro-chief group tried to get support from, issued statements condemning it. So have local and national Native associations and organizations. The American Indian Studies program at Illinois has several pages of information about it.

Rather than revere a stereotyped romantic image, students and grads can do something meaningful, like learning about why the Violence Against Women Act is important to us, or why Native people don't want the Keystone Pipeline on our lands.

Fans could spend time studying misrepresentations of American Indians that they've seen since early childhood, too. It starts with dressing up as Indians for birthday parties and Halloween:

 and continues through the play-Indian activities done at summer camps and by young men in the Order of the Arrow.

Seeing all of it from a critical vantage point can help fans understand why they embrace the mascot. Reading research studies on stereotypes, racism and bias can help fans develop their understanding of the origins and impacts of stereotypes.

Learning to think critically can help fans become informed allies of American Indians as we are, not as fans imagine us to be. I believe people must own their own ignorance, but I'm also aware that learning can't happen in a vacuum. The university has done nothing about that vacuum. It is a shame, and it reflects poorly on an institution of higher learning.

The current chancellor, Phyllis Wise, issued a statement letting students know that their referendum will not bring the mascot back, but she must do much more to help students and grads move past their current state of ignorance.


Lee said...

Thank you for your generosity of spirit towards UIUC students and alums, and for attributing the ongoing calls for "Chief Illiniwek's" return to ignorance rather than malice.

My parents are U of I alums, as am I (Class of 2002!), and I grew up in Champaign-Urbana. My daddy would take me to basketball games, and my favorite part was halftime, when the "Chief" would perform. It gave me a shivery feeling that this was something solemn and important.

But you know what? I grew up. I grew up, and I learned that this ceremony I'd thought of as solemn and important was a farce. And that no matter how "well-meaning" everyone was, it was actively hurting people – real people, not characters. And I tell you, it was remarkable how vicious those well-meaning people (who claimed to be honoring a culture) turned when confronted by those who they claimed to be honoring.

My mother joins me in being glad that the mascot has been retired. But my father is still a hold-out. Dad met Frank Fools Crow when he sold the university the Chief's regalia, and insists to this day that it honors the Illini (despite the fact that Fools Crow was Lakota, I suppose). Then he brings up our own Native heritage (which I assure you is minute – my great-great grandmother was Creek) and says that HE doesn't mind Native American mascots. It's an ongoing debate in our house, but I try to fight the good fight.

Anonymous said...

How can you fight stereotypes when the nonsense begins in school text books? This comes from my daughter's 3rd grade social studies book, copy righted in 2003.

It talks about the Black Hills, the Sioux, Crazy Horse and Custer. The reason, I guess, this is here, because there is a blurb about Mt. Rushmore. One can't have just dead white guys in text books anymore, so even if it is done badly, the publishers can say they are "inclusive".

Quote:"During that war, An American soldier named George Custer attacked Sioux Indians camping by Little Big Horn River in Montana. Crazy Horse led his warriors into battle, "It is a good day to die!" In minutes, Custer and his men were dead."

Reservations are described, "special areas set aside were the Indians were forced to live."


I asked my kid, what she got out of those 4 throw away paragraphs.

1)Indians are mean and kill people.
2)Indians live on Reservations because they killed people.

I had a very good discussion about what it meant to move to a reservation, and why the Indians were furious.


Debbie Reese said...


Thank you for sharing your experience with the mascot. People to, as you wrote, respond viciously, even when it isn't a confrontational interaction. When it is within a family or with friends, it is especially difficult. But, times do change, and this ignorance will change, too, but it'll take a lot of people like you to do it. Elsewhere I've seen people ask an Asian American why she cares about this issue, as if she shouldn't.


Debbie Reese said...


What is the title of the textbook?

Several people have done studies of textbooks and bias. A colleague in Tucson wrote about how a teacher there was using a book that said that a certain tribe had disappeared... and there were two students in the class who were members of that tribe!

Textbooks, as you note, are biased. Sometimes they're beyond belief: