x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Is appropriating a name necessarily disrespectful?

Is it necessary for the tam of California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District, called "Arab", to change its name?

No matter how awful the weather is – snowstorms or freezing rain – fans of America’s college and high school football teams take great pleasure in watching their rough-and-tumble games. They also enjoy seeing attractive cheerleaders on the sidelines performing acrobatic feats while marching bands belt out stirring tunes.

Added to this mix of entertainment are the team’s beloved mascots.

To intimidate opponents, some team mascots boast names of wild animals – panthers, jaguars, bears and lions. Students dress up in animal costumes to pump up their team’s spirits, growling away as they parade up and down the field. These mascots build and reinforce pride, and fans love them.

Other teams have had mascots with names such as “Redskins” and “Apaches” that are disrespectful to Native Americans and their history. “Redskins” is an abject racial slur, while “Apaches” is the name of a Native American tribe. More than two-thirds of the roughly 3,000 teams with Native American mascots have dropped them. Recently, northern California’s Vallejo High School discarded its controversial “Apache” mascot. Yet, after 80-plus years, the Washington “Redskins” name remains a fixture, even though Barack Obama has spoken out against it.

For more than 90 years, the team from southern California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) has called itself the “Arabs”. When Washington DC’s American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was recently told about this, it contacted the school, saying it was “perpetuating demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans”.

The school’s mascot is a student dressed as an ugly Arab with a heavy beard and a large nose, and costumed belly dancers perform at half-time.

For many Americans, the word “Arab” has a derogatory meaning, used to advance a hurtful stereotype. It is rarely used in a complimentary way. Yet there is a high-school football team and a community that loves the name “Arabs”.

On hearing about this, I agreed with the ADC. The images were stereotypical; the name had to go.

After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, there was great pressure on the team to change its name. But the school refused, arguing that the name actually shows respect and honours Arab culture.

History plays a role here. For many residents, the Coachella Valley “evokes the landscape of the Arabian Peninsula”, states an editorial in the local newspaper, Desert Sun. Early on, the name “Arabs” was selected because date palms from the Arab world were brought to the region. Now, the area’s date farms are some of the most productive outside of the Middle East. The mascot was never intended to dishonour or ridicule anyone, the paper said.

The Valley even boasts a Date Festival, dating back to 1921, and each year girls compete for the “crown of Queen Shahrazad”. Most local residents are hard-working, blue-collar Hispanic Americans, and they believe the term “Arabs” is appropriate for the school. Such names, they say, “are ways to celebrate our cultural diversity”.

Although residents have embraced the team name, stereotypes can cause unintentional harm. For example, during a game, opposing fans are likely to shout: “Beat those (expletive) Arabs!”

The ADC’s Abed Ayoub spent two days in the area meeting residents, community leaders, students, the mayor and the superintendent of schools. He told me: “I received a warm and respectful welcome. The people here know that damaging stereotypes hurt others, especially children.”

When he requested that the school replace the half-time belly dancing show and the angry Arab mascot with a more respectful image, no one objected.

Recognising that “symbols and words embraced for decades need to be changed” the editors of the local paper proposed the school use an updated image of an Arab rider on an Arabian stallion, believing this would be “a powerful symbol for the school’s proud sports teams”. And the superintendent of the CVUSD, Darryl S Adams, said this situation would help students develop “character and integrity”, adding that “we take this matter seriously and we will face it with compassion”.

To the ADC’s credit, an on-going constructive dialogue is now in place. A committee, headed by a representative from the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), plans to reach a decision by year’s end. If CVUSD officials follow the NCCJ guidelines, the name “Arabs” might well be eliminated. One guideline states that if a school representative can answer “yes” to even one of NCCJ’s 15 questions – such as “does the mascot represent the people of a racial, cultural or religious group?” – the mascot is considered inappropriate.

Instead, decision-makers may wish to heed the wisdom of a youngster who wrote this letter to the ADC: “Hello, I’m Alondra. We want our school to be about you and your culture. I am only in 4th grade; I am nine years old and I hope I can be a majestic Arab just like my big brother and big sister and mom and dad. That’s why I want to go to Coachella Valley High School, because I want to follow their footsteps. Thank you and I hope you enjoy your day.”

Which raises the question: if the school, the town’s leaders and residents are proud of the name “Arabs” and are willing to replace negative images with positive ones, is a name change really warranted?

Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture