Dolezal and ‘Chief Zee’

Kevin B. Black­i­stone on the hypocrisy of Na­tive Amer­i­can mas­cots for sports teams.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Kevin B. Black­i­stone sports@wash­ Kevin B. Black­i­stone, ESPN pan­elist and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, writes sports com­men­tary for The Post.

For much of my life, at least on fall and win­ter week­ends, I was Rachel Dolezal.

I donned a T-shirt, sweat­shirt or cap em­bla­zoned with some im­age and nick­name of my home­town football team and cheered it on. In the be­gin­ning, it was a gold-and-white spear and ar­row­head fes­tooned with a sin­gle feather. Then it be­came a bur­gundy R with a cir­cle around it and a pair of white-and-bur­gundy feath­ers dan­gling down the back. Fi­nally, the R gave way to the sil­hou­ette of a dark-skinned man with feath­ers cas­cad­ing from his scalp.

He was an “Amer­i­can In­dian,” as we’ve come to call the orig­i­nal and na­tive peo­ple of the Amer­i­cas. And the feath­ers, the golden spear and ar­row­head, the paint that some who sat in RFK Sta­dium near Dad and me streaked on their faces, the head­dresses that a few fans wore and nick­names they gave them­selves, such as a guy who went by “Chief Zee,” were all that con­cocted Na­tive Amer­i­can’s prop­erty — or his peo­ple’s.

We stole it. That’s called cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. It’s mis­ap­pli­ca­tion. It’s mis­use. It’s a cal­lous dis­re­gard of the sen­si­bil­i­ties of oth­ers who are not us.

That’s what too many of us con­tinue to do in and around Washington, D.C., with na­tive peo­ples’ cul­ture, all for our self­ish pur­pose as football fans. It’s the same as Dolezal — who Mon­day re­signed her pres­i­dency of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP af­ter her claim of be­ing black was dis­proved by her white bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents — steal­ing chunks of black Amer­i­can cul­ture for her gain.

An on­go­ing MSNBC poll is find­ing that more than twothirds of peo­ple think Dolezal, who ba­si­cally mas­coted as an African Amer­i­can like “Chief Zee” (real name: Zema Wil­liams) did a na­tive per­son, triv­i­al­ized black iden­tity.

The poll isn’t break­ing down re­sponses by race. But there is no need for quan­tifi­ca­tion of re­ac­tion to Dolezal’s dizzy­ing tale to know that we, black peo­ple, as most would ex­pect, feel par­tic­u­larly ag­grieved by this de­cep­tion. Good. It is a re­minder that there is noth­ing triv­ial about triv­i­al­iz­ing a peo­ple, which is why black fans of the football team I fell in love with grow­ing up should be in the vanguard of the move­ment to shed it of its na­tive im­agery rather than per­pet­u­at­ing it. I’ve dumped my gear over the years. And well be­fore the re­cent trend of not writ­ing the team’s nick­name, I stopped do­ing so.

That was one rea­son two friends and I from D.C., film­mak­ers Sam Bard­ley and Kali McIver — who were part of the team that pro­duced the ESPN 30 for 30 doc­u­men­tary “With­out Bias” about Len Bias — launched a film pro­ject last sum­mer about the prac­tice in sports of in­fan­tiliz­ing na­tive peo­ple, re­duc­ing them to parts of their sum. It is, we should have known all along, a dele­te­ri­ous prac­tice.

Whether it’s the football team we grew up root­ing for or the logo of the Chicago hockey team that just won the Stan­ley Cup or the chore­ographed be­hav­ior of At­lanta’s base­ball fans, it’s in­sen­si­tive at best, dan­ger­ous at worst and in­fu­ri­at­ing to those who are ob­jec­ti­fied.

“Yes, it’s about the R-word,” Robert Holden, the deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Congress of Amer­i­can In­di­ans, told us, “but it’s about the im­pact on chil­dren; it’s about the im­pact on tribal com­mu­ni­ties.”

In­deed, the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion 10 years ago called for an im­me­di­ate end to the use of na­tive peo­ples, sym­bols and im­ages in all sports. It cited more and more stud­ies that showed mas­cot­ing was no less than racial stereo­typ­ing and had a neg­a­tive im­pact on the iden­tity de­vel­op­ment and self-es­teem of na­tive kids.

These prac­tices haven’t helped na­tive teenagers and young adults whose sui­cide rate for 15- to 24-year-olds is dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age. It hasn’t helped na­tive kids who grad­u­ate high school at a rate 17 per­cent lower than the na­tional av­er­age. It hasn’t helped those whose sub­stance-abuse rates are higher than oth­ers their age.

“Amer­i­can In­dian mas­cots are harm­ful not only be­cause they are of­ten neg­a­tive but be­cause they re­mind Amer­i­can In­di­ans of the lim­ited ways in which oth­ers see them,” then Ari­zona pro­fes­sor Stephanie Fry­berg stated in the APA de­ci­sion. “This in turn re­stricts the num­ber of ways Amer­i­can In­di­ans can see them­selves.”

You want to pre­tend to be Na­tive Amer­i­can? You want to pre­tend to be black? Then see what it’s like to be at the top of those mis­ery sta­tis­tics. Go live on a reser­va­tion for a while. Or do as John Howard Grif­fin did dur­ing the civil rights move­ment to see how black peo­ple sur­vived in the Jim Crow South: Darken your skin to ap­pear as African Amer­i­can as pos­si­ble and travel from city to city and record, as he did in his book “Black Like Me,” how you are mis­treated.

But do­ing those sorts of things aren’t as lu­cra­tive as selling foam tom­a­hawks, vials of war paint, faux In­dian cloth­ing and feather head­dresses, which to­gether are also in­ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of rit­ual and cer­e­mony of up­ward of 600 na­tive tribes in this coun­try. And they cer­tainly aren’t as fun as pre­tend­ing you and your team are some sort of tribe, like Dolezal has pre­tended that she’s a part of the black sis­ter­hood like An­gela Davis or So­nia Sanchez.

There was a time when black Amer­i­cans were rou­tinely stereo­typed in this coun­try through mar­ket­ing im­ages and sym­bols in­tended to rep­re­sent our cul­ture. But through stead­fast protest and the af­fir­ma­tion of what is our real cul­ture, most of that imag­ing was elim­i­nated and rel­e­gated to col­lec­tions of the ab­surd. My fa­ther even wrote a let­ter of protest to Ed­ward Ben­nett Wil­liams in the mid-’60s, when Wil­liams presided over our fa­vorite football team, and elo­quently ar­gued for him to stop the team band from play­ing “Dixie,” which en­cour­aged some white fans to wave the Con­fed­er­ate flag and some black fans to con­front them. Wil­liams ac­ceded to my fa­ther’s per­spec­tive.

The dis­re­spect Dolezal has shown for black cul­ture and iden­tity is the same that ap­pro­pri­at­ing na­tive sym­bols and im­agery for a team sport has shown for na­tive peo­ple. Black football fans in par­tic­u­lar in this city should be just as out­raged about see­ing the cul­ture of oth­ers mis­rep­re­sented for profit as they are of Dolezal do­ing so with theirs.

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