February 22, 2008

Symbol Chasers


I saw this quote online from a Native American comedian, and thought it was kind of a crude riff on my hometown, even as old and shopworn as the arguments against the local baseball team's symbols have become.

The Cleveland Indians are going to change their name. They don't want to be known as a team that perpetuates racial stereotypes. From now on they're just going to be called the Indians." - Native Comedian Vaughn Eaglebear

I get it. Cleveland is a racist city because they harbor a team named the Indians. So anything carrying the name Cleveland is associated with offensive stereotype perpetuation. Funny stuff, Mr. Eaglebear. As a Clevelander I'm on the verge of being offended here. Oh, wait...that's the joke!. As a Clevelander, and as such an abettor of the great racial injustice that is the baseball team's nickname, I deserve to know how it feels to be demeaned. (Who said we were thin-skinned in this town?)

I grew up with the Tribe and Chief Wahoo, and have never felt like the team nickname or logo were messages of hate and derision directed toward Native Americans, or a still-kicking vestige of their oppression at the hands of the white man. I thought they were a nickname and logo for a baseball team, wielding the usual social impact accorded sports team names and logos. But what do I know? Lots of people live in a veritable froth over these symbols for years on end.

There are obviously many sincere arguments by thoughtful people (it's a curse) who view the name and logo of this baseball team as insulting racist symbols, and it is not my intent to ridicule their genuine discomfort with them. I share some of that discomfort. But if the nickname and the Chief Wahoo logo were eliminated tomorrow, how would any of the real social problems faced by Native Americans be addressed? Those who rail and flail against symbols not only find that any success they have is necessarily just symbolic, but that they are battling a symptom, not the ailment.

It follows that a person concerned with the actual lives of Native Americans might well be engaged in some practical enterprise on their behalf. I'm wary of the loud, indignant symbol chasers, whether they be chasing Ten Commandments displays, Confederate flags, or ice cream cup labels. Since actual victims of these symbols are tough to identify let alone "help", one looks to the needs of the symbol chasers themselves for an explanation.

It is argued that the Wahoo cartoon image is internalized by young people, and so shapes their views of real Native Americans. They might just as plausibly argue that watching Yogi Bear cartoons makes young people think real bears walk upright, speak English, and conspire to steal picnic baskets from tourists. Somehow that doesn't happen....because they are cartoons, and kids get it. They also get guidance from parents, teachers, friends and life experience in differentiating caricature and fantasy from reality.

Like most boomers, I was exposed as a kid to both positive and negative stereotypes and myths about Native Americans; in books, TV dramas, cartoons and cowboy movies mostly. Today's kids can still catch some of those shows and movies on cable. What kinds of exposures really shape our views of Native Americans in the absence of day-to-day personal contact with them? In the grand scheme of things, what is the impact on kids of cartoon images on baseball caps? Enough to stigmatize a whole city, apparently.

There's no end to the evidence of racism that can be discerned from Chief Wahoo by people who are looking hard enough for it. One outraged critic of the logo said of the Chief..."he looks like he just drank a bottle of Ripple from a brown paper bag!" Remind me....who are the ones perpetuating negative stereotypes again? (Was it the smile or the red nose that gave it away?)

Now Indians team management seems to be caving in, however gradually, to the noisemakers. In recent years, they have introduced a second logo, the uninspired script "I", which is now on the caps of the alternate home uniform, and is interspersed with the Wahoo on the team home page background. If this is not a first step toward the eventual elimination of Chief Wahoo, why is it being done? Which other teams have two logos?

All of this means it's just a matter of time until Chief Wahoo is tossed onto the trash heap. And the symbol chasers will cheer, and do media interviews. And the impact on the day-to-day lives of Native Americans will be zilch. But won't the symbol chasers feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Thousands of baseball fans who don't hold a shred of racism in their hearts will be outraged when management finally drops the beloved symbols of their beloved team. They will be offended, because that symbol means something entirely different to them...as it always has. But any offense they take at the removal of the symbol of their memories, and their loyalties, and their childhoods, and their heroes, doesn't count for as much as the offenses of some others on the grievance scoreboard.

And if that's the eventuality, maybe we will have gotten those various offenses prioritized correctly. And I'm OK with that...as long as the preening symbol chasers don't pretend they did something for someone besides themselves.

Posted by dan at February 22, 2008 10:32 PM