Chief Wahoo is emblematic of an American problem

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 29, 2018, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

The Cleveland Indians baseball team announced that they are retiring the Chief Wahoo logo. It has been a source of controversy for a long time, which makes you wonder why it's even still a thing.

When I was growing up, it was normal for a white kid to play "cowboys and Indians" in the neighborhood. Heck, the Indians in Peter Pan were the bad guys, not to mention the stereotypes in various cartoons. But even in the late 70's and early 80's, you started to learn in school that the Native Americans were here first, and they were nearly erased from North America by European settlers. As a kid, on camping trips to Allegany State Park, in Western New York, we would visit the Seneca-Iroquois museum in the neighboring town. And of course, at some point you start meeting actual Native Americans. (Admittedly this was somewhat unremarkable for me, growing up in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood and going to mostly-black schools in the desegregated Cleveland system. Diversity has always been my normal.) Experience starts to force a change in perspective.

I was never much of a baseball fan, but in my late 20's, passing the stadium every day on the way to work, I always had a squeamish feeling about the name, to say nothing of Chief Wahoo. But it's pretty easy as a white person to just brush it off and chalk it up to tradition. The problem is, America has made racism a tradition for its entire history, and we're long overdue to stop doing that. You can chalk Wahoo up to tradition, or the opposition to "political correctness" or some such shit, but if you really approach it logically and let go of whatever nostalgic attachment you have to Chief Wahoo, you know in your heart that this is really about basic human respect.

In the last few years, I've been continually amazed by the lack of empathy on the part of a subset of white people. Just calling it out puts people on the defensive. "I'm not racist!" they say. I theorize that the disconnect is that lacking racist intent can somehow excuse you from something that is in fact racism. I don't think Indians fans standing behind the logo hate Native Americans (maybe that's naive), but it's easy to not see racism if you can't stand in someone else's shoes. The lack of intent doesn't give you a pass for what the race in question finds universally offensive. Certainly, a pro sports team doesn't get to decide what is offensive to a minority.

My hope beyond hope is that this is being sorted out generationally. Not every Gen-X kid had my experience, but when I see the diversity that my son experiences in school, I have hope. It's up to every generation before his to set them up for success, and get over America's oldest problem. Basic human respect has to win over tradition, regardless of intent.


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