How To Argue Against Racist Indian Mascots: In *Honor* of the #SuperBowl

How many of you have been in the presence of someone using an (illogical and ludicrous) argument supporting racist ‪#‎IndianMascots‬?

This mascot honors Native Americans.

You’re messing with tradition!

Well I’m Native and I approve of this mascot.


By artist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee)

I’ve been at this for more than a decade, and many other amazing women for far longer than that (check out my heroes Dr. Adrienne Keene, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, Suzan Shown Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, among many others). Those of us in this battle know well the depth of fanaticism sports franchises and their supporters will travel to in defense of their precious team names and logos.

So while I’m aware a bazillion people disagree with me, I go forth with the following premise, for the sake of brevity: I’m going to assume good intent from readers. I’m also going to assume you understand the basics of racism and cultural appropriation, that you’re against these things, and hope you agree things that marginalize and dehumanize an entire race of people are wrong.

This is where the bulk of my non-activist friends reside when it comes to sports teams that use Native American-themed names and/or imagery: They know seeing a Washington or Cleveland jersey worn on game day makes them feel yucky inside, but when confronting a supporter, they lack the ability to explain their anti-mascot views effectively and succinctly.

How many of you have struggled to find the words to argue against these poor excuses for racism?

Well here’s a handy guide (produced by yours truly for Everyday Feminism) to help counter some of the most common statements from pro-mascoters:

[TW – racist images, words, phrases]

How To Argue Against Racist Mascots 

*A note about the Irish and oppression bit within the article, which many readers are using to derail the conversation: I apologize. I assumed readers would understand what I meant when I wrote “… the Irish… never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government.” Because, I really do get what you’re trying to say when you write, “But the Irish HAVE experienced oppression and colonial-based genocide!”

Trust me. I get it. Your comment about historical Irish oppression is true. Immediate members of my family are Irish (I am part-Irish) and grew up dirt poor in major East Coast cities. They experienced lots of poverty-based oppression, and my statements in no way erases the struggle for any immigrant, refugee, or impoverished person. I studied the Sinn Fein movement during my undergrad and often compared it with those tactics used during the Wounded Knee occupation.

But the key part of my statement from the article is “… at the hands of the US government.” That distinction is huge because no federal laws ever oppressed the Irish specifically. I thought it was a clear statement, but obviously it wasn’t and the uproar has detracted from the main point about racist Indian mascots.

Were they oppressed in similarly horrific ways on their own soil of Ireland by colonial British rule? Oh yes indeed. They have an indigenous history very similar to Natives. But NOT here in the US.

In the United States:

  • The Irish were allowed to practice Catholicism and rewarded (in terms of employment and eventual political/religious success) for being Catholic – Native people were slaughtered for practicing their religion and only got the *legal* right to practice ours in the 1970s.
  • The Irish received immediate citizenship; Natives weren’t even considered legal people until we were granted citizenship in 1924 (although many states, like my home state of South Dakota, didn’t enact citizenship until the 1960s).
  • Unlike Natives, the Irish could vote, hold jobs, take office, and feel fairly safe in dominant culture, because no systemic oppression targeted them as a race (no federal laws barred them from these things – ever). The “Irish Need Not Apply” job ads were cruel, but not a federal employment policy.
  • Native still experience this kind of systemic oppression. We are still suppressed as voters, still at the bottom of every negative statistic. The Irish – considered by the US Census Bureau (a federal agency) as white people in America – are doing just fine, in terms of race.
  • The Irish’s proximity to whiteness has been a huge factor in their (continued) success in the US. This is what we call privilege, something Natives have never known, in any capacity, in colonized America.

So I return to my original statement “…at the hands of the US government.” The Irish never experienced colonial-based destruction on US soil, by the US government. The Irish have been powerful presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators, clergy and more. Natives have not. There is no comparison here, folks. If we want to start a movement to change the Notre Dame mascot, I am HERE FOR THIS, but do not make the claim that the Irish face the same or even similar racism and systemic oppression experienced by Natives.

So when we talk about Indian mascots (the original issue, remember?), the dehumanization is based on systemic oppression in the US at the hands of the federal government. To compare the Fighting Irish (a school founded and the mascot approved by many Irish Catholics) to an Indian mascot isn’t logical because the Irish have “never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government” (original quote).

I hope this helps clarify the statement, and I apologize for not being clear within the article.

5 thoughts on “How To Argue Against Racist Indian Mascots: In *Honor* of the #SuperBowl

  1. I think that an argument premised on which group suffered most – early Irish or First Peoples – is a mistake. The history of the Irish in America is one of oppression. Period. And I would argue that one should not try to minimize or otherwise diminish this fact. Your post seems to suggest that this oppression doesn’t really matter as much. I realize that you explicitly deny doing this but what is the point of the first three bullet point comparisons, other than to suggest that their oppression was more tolerable?

    I think that the stronger case comes from your last two bullet points: the Irish in America are no longer an oppressed group, no longer consider themselves a distinct race and, thus, the “Fighting Irish” no longer has the same meaning that it would have had if history had been different. To see this, imagine if Irish Americans were still considered to “all be the same”: lazy, violent, sexually promiscuous and fit only for menial labor. In this world, “The Fighting Irish” would be deeply offensive and it would be offensive even though the U.S. government granted the Irish citizenship, they could practice Catholicism, etc.

    1. I get what you’re trying to say, TAK, but there is a HUGE difference between oppression and systemic oppression. You kinda hint at it in your second paragraph with the “no longer” comment. The Irish, as white people, were always going to be allowed (here in the US) a chance to succeed. Major super difference between what we’re talking about when we say “RETIRE INDIAN MASCOTS” to “RETIRE THE FIGHTING IRISH” (or Boston Celtics, whathaveyou).

      Someone on Facebook also suggested that my comments (the original phrasing and my explanation) are holding one oppression as worse than another. Here was my response and I hope we can continue to have good dialogue here.

      Remember: Pro-mascot folks will argue, “Well no one’s crying over the Fighting Irish (or Boston Celtics), so why do we have to get rid of Indian mascots?” or “I’m part Irish and am honored by the Fighting Irish.” (Or whatever. Something to that extent is always brought up.) First of all (like I stated in the article), I wholly support anyone who wants racially-based mascots retired. Totally here for that. But the basis for retiring Indian mascots has always been because of the US government’s relationship with its indigenous people – that relationship has always been based on *systemic* oppression (beginning with the US Constitution referencing us as “savages,” to today’s refusal to honor treaties – and then some). That’s what makes Indian mascots SO wrong, because it supports and strengthens that systemic oppression, that we are *still* savages and unworthy of nation-to-nation respect.

      If the Irish want to retire mascots that represent them or their heritage, go for it (please!), but they cannot make the same claim that they were *systemically* oppressed and continue to be treated thusly. With Indian mascots, we’re talking straight up racism; with Irish mascots, we’re talking ‘being offended,’ and, yes, I think there’s a huge difference there, because, quite frankly, the Irish are white and always have been. Poor white. And Catholic white. Stereotyped viciously. But white, nonetheless. To suggest the Irish faced anything (again – here in the US) remotely similar to the genocide and oppression experienced by people of color (Natives, Blacks, Asians, etc.), is way off base… especially within the context of oppression experienced today (and further within the context of the original topic of mascots).

      Yes: I completely agree the Irish were oppressed in many ways (class, religion, culture, nationality) – but not *systemically* and certainly not today (in the US) – no federal policies ever singled out the Irish. Sure, various groups totally cast them out, ghettoized their neighborhoods, created nationalist political parties, etc., but not on a nationwide scale, and not through federal policies meant to wipe them off the face of the Earth. When it comes down to it, their whiteness was/is their privilege (then and now – here in the US).

      1. So this is a strange discussion in that I agree with you: Irish mascots are not the same as Native mascots and it is a mistake to equate the two. Native mascots are racist and must go but the Fighting Irish, while not great, is not . Further, I agree that the experience of Natives is not the same as the experience of the Irish. From the beginning, British colonial policy was horrific, racist and unrelenting. While the Irish were held to be contemptible by the English, they were Europeans and so were treated better than Natives.

        That said, I’m not sure that it is useful or productive to make that claim that the Irish weren’t oppressed *enough* to warrant offense. Granting that it is true that Natives experienced far worse than early Irish immigrants, to minimize the oppression of any group appears insulting and dismissive. I realize that I’m simply restating my original point but I’m not sure I have understood why you believe this is permissible. (Again, maybe I have misunderstood your position but it seems to me that this is the thrust of your argument.) So, if I have read you right, here is one thing that I think we disagree on.

        Second, I disagree with your reading of history. When the wave of Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in the mid-eighteenth century, they were, in fact, considered a distinct (and inferior) race.

        If you haven’t yet read it, I’d recommend taking a look at “How the Irish Became White”, by Noel Ignatiev. The Irish, in Ireland, were suffering under state sponsored oppression – laws against Catholics prevented Irish Catholics from being full citizens. The same sort of racism which served to justify their exclusion there was held by the Anglo-Protestant elite in the U.S. Early colonial charters established Protestant churches and some colonies did, in fact, pass laws restricting Catholicism (which was practiced predominantly in the British Isles only by the Irish). But even if the Irish did not suffer from overt political oppression, they were subject to systemic social oppression which, under the Know Nothings and, later, the KKK, could erupt into violence and terror. You are right that America offered less political oppression but to characterize the Irish as favored is to misrepresent their position. Again, this is not to establish that the Irish had it worse (or even equal to) the oppression faced by Natives; rather, it establishes that their oppression was genuine and not trivial.

        I’ll try one last time to point out why I think your line of thought is problematic. Imagine a slightly different America where the Irish were still considered inferior – one where people derided “dysfunctional Irish culture”, where people argue that the wealth and education gap that the Irish face are self-inflicted, that the unemployment they face is because alcoholism has replaced personal responsibility, and when one thought of welfare, large Catholic families sprung to mind. This is not so sci fi – it was the view of most Americans in the past. Would you still argue that the Fighting Irish mascot was okay? That because the Irish have no history of state-sponsored segregation that the Irish really can’t complain? That it is unfortunate that the Irish child is mocked or bullied and called derogatory names but that this is “only” oppression (as opposed to systemic oppression), and that when she plays sports against a team that presents a caricature of her culture, that she is “only” being offended? At the risk of being presumptuous, I don’t think you would. And the reason is in your original article, where you have said, of other disadvantaged groups, that you would no longer throw them under a bus. What matters is whether an ethnic or racial group is *currently* being oppressed.

        To return to our world, with our history, the reason that Irish Americans cannot equate their mascot with Native mascots is that things have changed for Irish Americans. As Ignatiev puts it, they “became White”. Over time, the sort of racist baggage that held them back was left behind. At the same time, Ignatiev argues that the Irish picked up the racisms of the dominant society, as a way of distinguishing themselves from other minority groups. And, in my mind, this turning point is the key. It is because the Irish in America are no longer oppressed, are no longer looked at all sharing the same (negative) values, beliefs and culture, that “The Fighting Irish” has lost its power to demean and perpetuate injustice. Simply put, no one really believes that the mascot represents Irish Americans as a cultural group. But, as you have rightly argued, Native mascots do have this (negative) power, that due to continuing racism and ignorance, Americans tend to hold onto stereotypes of Natives and Native mascots perpetuate these stereotypes. And so the cases are not similar. Here, again, we agree but I think for different reasons.

        All that said, this is somewhat of a tempest in a teapot. I really liked your original post and am using it in my Race and Philosophy class. My comments are a suggestion; I think that your strongest response to the Fighting Irish is your point that the Irish in America are not in the same position as Natives are and, as you say, context is vital to understanding why one ethnic mascot is not the same.

      2. No one is saying the Irish were never oppressed or didn’t suffer *enough,* but they were oppressed in very very *different* ways than POC. And I still stand by my research of history (which indeed includes Ignatiev’s work, although the Irish were always ‘white’ and to suggest otherwise diminishes the racism POC experienced, but I appreciate what he’s saying regarding their solidified role as non-other in that many Irish oppressed POC to access membership within the white privilege crowd) – the Irish did not experience racially-based systemic oppression in the US – ever. You’ll get no argument from me about immigrant oppression (laws which targeted Asians, primarily), religious oppression (against Catholics is kinda laughable, considering their super power and influence throughout the world then and now – being wary of Catholics was based on self-preservation for many, ask any Native that went to a Catholic boarding school – WAY OFF TOPIC! – sorry)… Finally, never argued Irish mascots were OK, but the the arguments putting them in the same category as Indian mascots is supremely faulty. Good discussion, TAK. Thank you!

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