Wrestler man­i­fests decades of racial de­sen­si­ti­za­tion

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE Wash­ing­ton Post

On Wed­nes­day, a lit­tle more than a week after his new client, a 16-year-old New Jer­sey high school wrestler named An­drew John­son, was or­dered by a ref­eree to cut his dread­locks or for­feit his match, Do­minic Speziali – like so many of us who wit­nessed the in­ci­dent on a so­cial me­dia post seen 15 mil­lion times now – was still search­ing for a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion.

“Why this had to hap­pen is still not clear to me,” Speziali, a lawyer hired by John­son’s fam­ily, told an emer­gency meet­ing of the Buena (N.J.) Re­gional School Dis­trict. “Why that had to hap­pen in that man­ner to An­drew is not clear.”

John­son, the Buena High wrestler who suf­fered the shear­ing of his locks, is black.

The ref­eree who de­creed the ul­ti­ma­tum, Alan Maloney, is white.

And John­son’s coaches, team­mates, op­po­nents and fans – who through im­po­tence of protest are not the in­no­cents they por­trayed them­selves but tacit sup­port­ers of the ref­eree’s de­mand – are like the Buena com­mu­nity and school dis­trict, too – pre­dom­i­nantly white.

That is how what hap­pened, hap­pened. It was the man­i­fes­ta­tion of decades of racial de­sen­si­ti­za­tion. It is a his­tor­i­cal lack of re­spect for peo­ple of color – for whom hair style is a par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant part of cul­ture and his­tory – in pro­mo­tion of norms de­cided upon by ama­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion.

And it is all prop­a­gated heav­ily through sports.

What fell upon John­son just be­fore Christ­mas re­minded of what was or­dered of na­tive men at the start of the 20th cen­tury. In 1902, U.S. Com­mis­sioner of In­dian Af­fairs Wil­liam Atkin­son Jones sent a let­ter to the su­per­in­ten­dents of the coun­try’s reser­va­tions that be­came known as the “hair­cut or­der.” He ob­jected to na­tive men wear­ing their hair long, and main­tain­ing other ex­pres­sions of their her­itage, as not “keep­ing with the ad­vance­ment they are mak­ing ... in civ­i­liza­tion.” Jones, like Maloney, pro­posed a puni­tive mea­sure for those who re­fused to im­i­tate the cul­ture that op­pressed them: with­hold ra­tions.

Un­like what hap­pened in New Jer­sey this month, how­ever, lev­el­head­ed­ness pre­vailed and the hair­cut or­der was re­jected. But the idea that re­spect for na­tives’ cus­toms was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, and un­nec­es­sary, lived on. As Harper’s Weekly re­sponded at the time, Na­tive Amer­i­cans should be taught “to adapt to new con­di­tions step by step.”

Kevin Gover, di­rec­tor of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian, ex­plained once to USA To­day how what hap­pened over a cen­tury ago con­tin­ues to in­fest so­ci­ety to­day. “They were lit­er­ally known as ‘civ­i­liza­tion reg­u­la­tions,’ ” he said, “passed not by Congress but cre­ated by bu­reau­crats and en­forced ag­gres­sively, and often ar­bi­trar­ily, by other bu­reau­crats.

“All of this was tak­ing place out­side the view of the av­er­age Amer­i­can. At that time, some­one liv­ing in Philadel­phia – or, more tellingly, in Cleve­land or Bos­ton – might con­clude there are no In­di­ans any­more. They are gone. And, in fact, that was the ob­jec­tive of fed­eral pol­icy. ... So there were a lot of very pow­er­ful forces at work to deny Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple of agency over their own iden­ti­ties and their very lives. And that’s when the mas­cots emerged.”

Base­ball’s Bos­ton Braves popped up in 1912, fol­lowed by the Cleve­land In­di­ans in 1915. The NFL’s Oo­rang In­di­ans showed up in 1922 com­prised of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, coached by na­tive ath­letic leg­end Jim Thorpe and fea­tur­ing tom­a­hawk-throw­ing half­time shows.

Most in­fa­mously, in 1933 the Wash­ing­ton NFL team got its nick­name while still in Bos­ton. It moved to D.C. four years later.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, even Buena High chose such a nick­name. Its teams are known as the In­di­ans. They are not alone in New Jer­sey. Nearby Sha­mong Town­ship School Dis­trict has sev­eral na­tive nick­names, which a spokes­woman, Pa­tri­cia S. Milich, de­fended sev­eral years ago. “The names and im­ages as­so­ci­ated with our high schools,” she said, “Le­nape, Shawnee, Chero­kee and Seneca – are nei­ther de­mean­ing nor stereo­typ­i­cal.”

But that is not what stud­ies have found.

What hap­pened in New Jer­sey is a rev­e­la­tion of the in­sid­i­ous na­ture of these so-called re­spect­ful and honor­able re­mem­brances of the peo­ple this coun­try col­o­nized and all but oblit­er­ated. Stereo­typ­i­cal im­ages of na­tive peo­ple not only have left na­tive youth, in par­tic­u­lar, to suf­fer lower self-es­teem, but also eroded the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of all of us.

But it’s not just seen overtly in Wash­ing­ton foot­ball fans who don’t see their team’s nick­name, or the wear­ing of cer­e­mo­nial face paint or head­dresses, as an af­front. It’s not just seen at the col­leges, uni­ver­si­ties and high schools such as Buena that cling to nick­names ref­er­enc­ing na­tive peo­ple while so many oth­ers have found they can have as much fun after chang­ing their nick­names and im­agery to just about any­thing else.

Four re­searchers at four dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties just a few years ago found that “ex­po­sure to an Amer­i­can In­dian sports icon in­creased the ten­dency to en­dorse stereo­types about a dif­fer­ent racial mi­nor­ity group.”

The study, ti­tled “Ef­fect of Ex­po­sure to an Amer­i­can In­dian Mas­cot on the Ten­dency to Stereo­type a Dif­fer­ent Mi­nor­ity Group,” stated: “Our re­sults in­di­cate that even if the in­ten­tion of the de­pic­tion may have been to honor and re­spect, the ram­i­fi­ca­tion of ex­po­sure to the por­trayal is height­ened stereo­typ­ing of racial mi­nori­ties. The cur­rent study pro­vides much-needed ev­i­dence to em­pir­i­cally eval­u­ate the ef­fects of Na­tive Amer­i­can mas­cots on cre­ation of a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. The ev­i­dence sug­gests that the ef­fects of these mas­cots have neg­a­tive im­pli­ca­tions not just for Amer­i­can In­di­ans, but for all con­sumers of the stereo­type.”

Speziali con­cluded his ap­pear­ance be­fore the Buena board by say­ing his client wouldn’t wres­tle Thurs­day as sched­uled. He would stay side­lined due to in­jury.

It wasn’t any­thing phys­i­cal John­son suf­fered dur­ing the match that he won last week. In­stead, it was the men­tal an­guish.


In this im­age taken from a Dec. 19 video pro­vided by snj­to­day.com, Buena Re­gional High School wrestler An­drew John­son is de­clared the win­ner after his match in in Buena, N.J. Be­fore the match a ref­eree told John­son he would for­feit his bout if he didn’t have his dread­locks cut off.

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