Saturday, May 12, 2007

We’re Not Good Judges of What’s Hurtful to Others

Note: This opinion was originally published April 28, 2001 as a guest editorial in the State-Journal Register, my hometown newspaper. It took another six years for the University of Illinois to ban the Chief. The reasoning they used...University was losing too much money because of NCAA penalties related to using racist mascots. See Chris Britt,'s political cartoon at the end of this article to see how the paper responded when they finally got rid of the Chief.

We just don’t get it. By “we” I mean Americans of European ancestry. We have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about. We believe Chief Illiniwek is really cool. We say he is revered. We say he’s not offensive at all, but a good symbol of Native Americans.

I used to live down the street from Webber Borchers, the first Chief Illiniwek and former state assemblyman. The colorful old cuss used to revel us with stories about the character he created in 1929 when he was a history major at the University of Illinois.

He would tell how he traveled the country, raising money for an “authentic” costume. Traveling to South Dakota, he arranged to have Native American women make the costume. Borchers first wore the costume to lead the band down Fifth Avenue in New York before the Army-Illinois game in 1930. I believe that costume, or one much like it, is still used today.

He devised the first dance … and loved telling how he developed it. Ahhhh …how that man revered the Chief. He saw what he was doing as a way to build school spirit, and a way to start a school tradition.

Several years ago, I was in the stadium at the University of Illinois the day many former Chief Illiniweks, including Borchers, took the field at halftime to do their own unique, and to their way of thinking, “authentic” dance.

I am sure that he and the other Chief Illiniweks that followed were sincerely trying to pay homage to the “noble savage.” But, the depth of their sincerity, or the depth of ours, should not be a factor in the decision to retire the Chief. If in the light of a new day, an old tradition offends, then it’s time to drop the tradition.

In minstrels shows white entertainers put on black face and satirized slaves in the South and ex-slaves in the North. Blackface entertainers first appeared in New YorkEngland in the 1830s and became wildly popular after the Civil War.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice was one to first appear in blackface. He developed Ethiopian Opera – dramatic farces in blackface—like the “Long Island Juba” and “the Black Cupid”. His “Jim Crow” act included a shuffling dance and song. It was very popular, and became the first international hit of American popular music.

The reviews don’t include what people in Harlem thought of his act.

I’m sure that in his own way Rice, too, was paying respect. Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. However, nearly all of us would agree that the minstrel show “coon” is a racist travesty. Writing about it, just now, made me cringe. It’s such a no-brainer today.

But, it took the people being caricatured to tell us (white folk) that it demeaned them and their very rich culture. And they had to say it repeatedly before we even began to understand. Now, on the other side of the struggle, it’s a fairly easy call. We listened and learned and most of us understood.

There are numerous examples of this characterizing culture other than our own in white history. Asians, Jews, Latinos, Arabs and others have, and sometimes still feel, the sting of white stereotyping and mimicry.

Our track record on sensitivity to cultures other than our own is dismal and oppressive. Perhaps we should admit something to ourselves. That is, if we’re part of the dominant culture, we are not good judges about what is and isn’t offensive to another’s culture.

Perhaps we should listen, and even if we don’t understand, accept what the minority culture has to say about our portrayal of them. Time will probably prove them right.

It’s time to let Chief Illiniwek go – even if some of us still don’t get it.

Chris Britt's Political Cartoon about the removal of Chief Illiniwek mascott.
It appeared in the State-Journal Register Feb 8, 2007.