Four HISD campuses will have to adopt new mascots after the school board gave final approval Thursday to a policy banning certain nicknames, such as the Redskins.
The proposal from Superintendent Terry Grier drew some debate among students, alumni and community members, but the change puts the school district in line with others nationwide that have retired mascots tied to Native Americans.
Specifically, the new Houston Independent School District policy bans nicknames deemed offensive or culturally insensitive. District leaders said the affected mascots are the Lamar High Redskins, the Westbury High Rebels, the Hamilton Middle School Indians and the Welch Middle School Warriors.
The school principals will have the next several months to work with the community to adopt new mascots, said HISD spokeswoman Tiffany Davila-Dunne. The school board will not have to sign off on the new names.
Earlier in the week, the Chron ran a couple of op-eds about the upcoming policy change. This one, by Carnegie Vanguard senior Maya Fontenot and Lamar alumnus Kenyon Weaver, who has been advocating this change since his high school days, deals with the usual arguments against the change.
A common refrain is that this is all political correctness, sprung on an unsuspecting HISD by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who, after meeting with a group of Native Americans, wrote a letter to Superintendent Terry Grier articulating their sincere concerns about the “Redskins.”
It is true that Ellis and Grier spotlighted this issue, but it is one that festered long before. The fact is that nationwide since the 1970s, an estimated two-thirds of schools with Native American iconography have adopted new mascots in recognition that such use is hurtful and a result of, as Stanford University’s Lois Amsterdam put it in 1972, “childish misrepresentations in games, history books and motion pictures.” (Stanford stopped using the “Indian” mascot in 1972.)
Calling this effort “PC,” or politically correct, is, in fact, the true problem. Such a posture closes the mind and the heart.
This posture leads to conversations such as: “So, what’s the big deal? It’s a small population, few Native Americans actually attend HISD, and many don’t see the term as offensive if they’re turning it into a positive word. In fact it’s honoring indigenous people. Natives are just being oversensitive.” Objecting when a public educational institution reduces an entire race of people and their traditions into a caricature used in sports, we don’t think that’s overly sensitive.
The next argument that often comes: “Where do you draw the line? If you cannot have Native Americans as mascots – what’s next, banning the use of animals too?” Ending offensive symbolism and respecting human cultures and communities is not a slippery slope that results in nonsensical rules that cross over to the animal kingdom.
Chron editorial board member Evan Mintz followed up with a point that’s worth remembering from his high school experience.
About two decades ago, my own alma mater, St. John’s School, had a similar tussle over its mascot name: The Rebels. Apparently some people didn’t like a mascot that implied we sympathized with folks who thought it a tragedy that the North won the Civil War..
The school first tried a rhetorical switch. Instead of Rebels with Confederate flags and a Johnny Reb mascot, we became Rebels as in the James Dean movie, “Rebel Without A Cause,” with a greasy-headed delinquent in a leather jacket. It was a clever trick, but not clever enough. So in 2004, after much stress, we just became the Mavericks. All the synonymous definition of Rebel, without any of the historical baggage.
Now, 10 years later, no one really seems to care. That’s the lesson: Alumni will get over it. Teenagers will identify with whatever a cheerleader yells at them. And high schools only have an institutional memory of four years.
He also has some suggestions for the four affected schools:
Be interesting. You’re losing mascots that not only fail to unite a community, but could be found at any school across our nation. Pursue something that is a unique identifier for your school or be stuck with another bland moniker.
Lamar High School, down the street from the River Oaks Country Club, could embrace its oil-money neighborhood and become the Oil Barons or Wildcatters. How about the Lamar Oilers for some Houston nostalgia?
Westbury High School, with its automotive technology programs, could become the Sparkplugs, Hot Rods or Roadsters.
Hamilton Middle School, situated between Yale and Harvard at the northern end of Heights Boulevard, could be the Ivies or the Streetcars. The school could even look to its robotics program and become the Jaegers. Giant fighting robots? Now that’s something middle school students can cheer.
And Welch Middle School should simply bask in the stardom of its most famous graduate and become the Beyoncés. Flawless.
My alma mater has followed that path – its mascot is “Pegleg Pete”, in honor of our namesake – though many of our sports teams go their own way on nicknames. Students and alumni at Lamar et al might consider that option as well.