A Gathering Voices Post by Nikkita Oliver
Last fall I attended the "RACE: Are We So Different?" exhibit at the Seattle Center as part of an outing with the Krista Foundation. Inside I found myself at a unique and very relevant display. It contained photos of numerous sports mascots; all of which were caricatures of various native groups. The display also had a binder full of notecards where visitors were allowed to express their opinion on the topic at hand.
A number of the commenters self-identified as Native, illuminating the trauma and harm that sports mascots inflicted on them, their tribes, and communities. Juxtaposed to these personal truths were the thoughts of those who see no problem with the manner in which sports teams have co-opted Native cultural images and in many instances commercialized the most stereotypical images. There were also those who self-identified as Native who took no issue with the mascots and maybe even saw other issues as more concerning—this made the dialogue even more complex!
To many people mascots modeled after Native images do not seem like a big deal. It may even seem nitpicky or petty given the many other issues that society is facing. One comment really stuck out to me. A member of the Tlingit tribe described what they believed to be the gravest issues facing Native communities. They discussed the life expectancy of Native males and the drop-out rate of Native teens stating, "These issues are far more important than sports team mascots."
After visiting the exhibit I began to think about all the little things that communities of color face and how those little things add up. How running water over time can wear away a rock! Sometimes the smallest things can have the greatest impact.
As a brown person in the predominantly white institution of law I constantly deal with small nuanced forms of racism that are easily overlooked. Two years ago I was introduced to the word “microaggression.” A microaggression happens when a member of a dominant culture says or does something that belittles a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions are often unintentional and may have even been a well-intended action. Before I learned this term I intuitively understood this. As a woman of color I experience microaggressions every day. Over the years I have learned to let little things roll off my back, but there are days when they just simply add up and they need to be addressed.
So what do microaggressions, small things, and sports mascots derived from natives cultures have to with one another?
In the United States there is an overall acceptance of the co-optation of cultural assets. This co-optation usually happens with very little regard for the cultures who created the asset. Rarely do the owners and creators of these cultural assets receive any sort of recognition or payment for the use of their image even when their image is being used for profit. This process further contributes to the damage done to a community or cultural groups psyche and continues to propel a negative and oppressive relationship between the dominant group and the marginalized group.
While some non-Native people may not see a problem with the mascots, and may even point to those Native people who take no issue with it to legitimate their own point of view, the reality is there are Native peoples who are offended by the use of their cultural assets as mascots. Who see these mascots as daily reminders of the many microaggressions they face in society. When considering racial and ethnic concerns that may seem minute, it is important to remember that big things are often made of smaller things. A small cut can very easily become an infection and a small change can be the catalyst needed to spark a big change.
Dr. John M. Perkins speaks of these little things in his work. When I was in college I sat in a room of young leaders at Seattle Pacific University eager to make change in the world. He told us the key to community change is understanding that society is like the human body. That sometimes small symptoms help us see and diagnose the bigger underlying illness. He encouraged us not to overlook the small things. He reminded us to listen to a community and if any part of the community is saying “ouch” to start at the hurt.
He then shared with us this story:
A team of community developers arrived in a neighborhood. They interviewed the people, did research and prepared a list of things they believed the community needed to solve. This list had hundreds of items ranked from the most important to the least. The community members' response to the community developers was that the rat problem was the most important issue to address. The rat problem was ranked in the lowest portion of the list the developers created. Despite their own ideas, the community developers listened to the neighborhood and addressed the rat problem first. As the rats disappeared so did most of the list.
Dr. Perkins shared this story to remind us of two key principles in community development and change: 1) The small things matter and 2) a community knows itself better than an outside developer ever will.
Mascots may seem like a small issue, but in many ways is microaggression that co-opts the most stereotypical images of a group that has historically been oppressed in the US and is presently marginalized. When people in Native communities say “ouch, that hurts”, we need to listen. The “small act” of using Native cultural images as mascots is the continued poking and prodding on a large wound and emblematic of how we often devalue other people and their cultures.
Mascots may not seem like a big deal in light of drop-out rates and mass incarceration, but they are small piece of the puzzle in addressing the root causes of both individual and institutional racism. Our willingness and humility to eliminate the "small" things shows our love and respect for humanity and lead us towards addressing the "larger" struggles.
I believe that we would better serve each other and society if we learned to see multiple solutions, no matter how big or small, as viable and equally necessary. The work of reconciliation is not easy and often happens in the least obvious places. Reconciliation, like a journey, happens one step at time; sometimes in small steps and sometimes in large strides. We often do not know the value of our small steps, but without them we would not have made it through the journey—listening and acting on the small things makes the big changes possible.
The reality is the United States has a long history of using caricatures of people color for humor, propaganda, and marginalization. This is not a new practice and the roots of it are not healthy. So why are we so opposed to eliminating this practice?
In the end, what I gathered from the exhibit was that there are Natives peoples who are saying “ouch” when they see these mascots and co-optation of their cultural assets. As a society we must hear these voices and respond in a way that alleviates pain. Eliminating the use of these mascots would not hurt anyone; it would only alleviate pain. Besides, I firmly believe that we humans are creative enough to develop new less offensive team mascots that we all can rally behind!
About the Author:
Nikkita Oliver is a Gates Scholar at the University of Washington Law School and a M. Ed. candidate in the UW College of Education. She is a member of the 2014-2015 Washington State Teaching Artist Training Lab, a two-time Women of the World representative for the Seattle Poetry Slam, and the 2014 Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Slam Champion. She has performed at the Nuyorican, Seattle Poetry Slam, Rain City Slam, Freshest Roots, and opened for Dr. Cornell West.