Critical Spontaneity

When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

Dear University of Illinois,

In 6 years, much can be accomplished. Lincoln Hall and the ARC have been renovated, the SDRP has been built, the basketball team has finally beat Indiana, and many of us have walked across stage with a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, though, 6 years has not been enough time to remedy the school’s history of exclusion and cultural appropriation.

Having graduated from the University of Illinois, we are shocked to hear The News-Gazette report that students get the vote to uphold racism on March 5-6, 2013. Are we really allowing this in the year 2013? This so-called “democratic” system the Student Senate and University uses is incredibly flawed if we point out this whole argument is about protecting underrepresented students, underrepresented meaning “not an adequate amount,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The annual School Report shows there are currently only 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members identifying as Native American on campus. Do we really think this is a fair vote? The results of this ballot will only give Chief supporters a tangible way to prove how massive and in the majority they really are. Allowing students to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students. Or, should we say, continues to allow students to have power over underrepresented students.

The Student Senate and this campus’s administration usually do not take a side when it comes to the Chief; it is out of privilege that neither is forced to take a side. Many students who fight against the Chief do so for survival. We do it because we hope to make the university a more inclusive space for those who come after us. Silence or neutrality chooses the side of the oppressor. More than the expected jeers and sneers from the pro-Chief fans, we will remember your silence. This silence is something commonplace in many atrocious events in this nation’s history. In a space where Chief-fanaticism exists, the silence of the administration not only allows for the growth of this fanaticism, but legitimizes it. The university has had 6 years to educate students on this issues instead of hoping it would die out. Instead, their silence has left students to fight for themselves and amongst themselves.

Less than 100 years ago–in 1916–the Ku Klux Klan was an honorary student organization at the University of Illinois. Since then, the university has continually been a site of racist incidents. To ignore our school’s racist history is not to understand fully the Chief debate. Although we have since then “welcomed” students of color to attend our university, recruitment and retention of students of color is still less than ideal.

Stephanie Fryburg and her colleagues at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan have done multiple psychological studies on the effects of mainstream characterizations of Native imagery on Native students’ self-efficacy and academic well-being. In an article published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Fryburg and her colleagues found that exposure to Native imagery, including images like Chief Illiniwek and Disney’s Pocahontas, had a pronounced negative impact on Native students’ well-being, while the same imagery actually boosted White students’ self-efficacy. Not only does imagery like Chief Illiniwek not properly “honor” Native peoples, it is actively discriminatory in this way when propagated on a college campus. We have seen countless incidents of cultural misappropriation protected as humor or tradition. From the infamous “Tacos and Tequilas” party to commonplace games of “cowboys and Indians,” it becomes evident that not enough has changed. Perhaps we can argue that modern day racism is all in good “humor,” but only one year ago Prof. Dharmapala was stabbed 6-inches into the throat as a result of racist ideology on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Such shocking incidents make us reasonably question the neutrality of such “humor.”

Other times, racism is upheld not as “humor” but as “tradition”. Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Chief supporters feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with. Even those Chief supporters who do not have such connections benefit from a tradition of excavating, destroying, and abusing Native land and culture; nor have they faced the very real and potent difficulties that shape the lives of Native peoples living in this country today. Now our generation fights over the symbol that still remains a reminder of “tradition” to some and of death to others.

Let’s start calling it as it is. The real, choice students will be making on March 5-6th is not simply choosing the Chief or a new mascot. It is choosing whether or not to go backwards and reinstall a racist mascot or choosing to move forward toward new traditions. We can find a mascot that can represent all of us. We can find other things to fight for.

The Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni

Suey Park & Thaddeus Andracki

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25 comments on “When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

  1. Edmund Burke
    February 26, 2013

    Let the Chief live!

    The author of this article should also be on a racist witch-hunt against the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, the ATL Braves, the Fighting Irish, the Indians, the Redskins and a slew of other teams. Accusing people of being ‘racists’ for not wanting to change the single most memorable part of generations college experience is ridiculous. What happened to the post-racial society? Suddenly everyone is a ‘racist’ again.

  2. Matt
    February 26, 2013

    Racism is hardly gone Edmund. Helping see the ways racism is still alive takes a keen eye and is no longer “Whites only”. It can take many forms, but this is not the stage to convince you of anything behind a keyboard.

  3. Tom
    February 26, 2013

    The authors should get their facts straight before blaming certain university organizations. For the record, the Illinois Student Senate has absolutely nothing to do with the referendum question regarding the chief, nor does the administration for that matter. This ballot question was completely student driven, and gathered the required student signatures (2-3 thousand I believe) to get it on the May 6th election ballot. It is in direct response to the horribly botched online poll to measure support for a new mascot. The poll was intentionally one sided, not including a “No” option which would allow students to voice their opinion if they did not want to move forward with a new mascot. Many students were rightfully upset, and wanted a way to voice their opinion. So if you want to blame anyone for bringing forth this question, then blame the student body at large.

    Additionally, don’t make gross comparisons between Chief supporters and the KKK and an isolated crazed attacker, it’s pretty ignorant to do so. While you can certainly claim (perhaps rightfully so) that the Chief symbol perpetuates cultural stereotypes, unintentionally offends others, etc., you CANNOT claim that the Chief and its supporters have an active goal of discrimination, violence, and racism. Making that comparison does nothing but weaken your stance in this debate.

    I also noticed that you referenced the local case of an apparent race-based attack by a white man. How is this relevant to this case? Why not also mention the infamous “Polar Bear” attacks of recent years, involving groups of blacks attacking white victims? Did that slip your mind, or did you intentionally leave that out to fit your argument here?

    You mention fighting for inclusion on campus, which is a worthy fight indeed. Is it a perfect campus? Absolutely not, there is always room for improvement. But there are many other issues on campus that do little to harbor an atmosphere of unity and inclusiveness. How about the multitude of race-based events? I’m sure all the white, latino, asian, and students of other ethnicity feel very welcome at the University-sponsored African American Homecoming. And I’m sure that isolating students in cultural houses (which many minorities on campus seem to lack, by the way) goes on long way in creating a unified and inclusive campus. It certainly doesn’t encourage students to form race cliques or feel inclined to be part of a collective race identity rather than celebrate individuality regardless of background (Irony strongly intended here).

    Does racism exist on campus? Yes. Is the Chief mascot racist? Most likely, yes, though a civil discussion over intent of the symbol can and should happen. The point is that racism exists in many forms on campus, and all parties, regardless of race or religion are involved. The unfair comparisons you make in the post do little to foster civil debate and progress, and in fact delay them.

    • Vinny
      February 26, 2013

      While the Chief supporters may not have the active goal of discrimination, violation, and racism, the Chief itself is a negative cultural trope that promotes stereotyping and a net negative feeling for those affected by it.

      Also, nice job in mentioning some of the hyperbole in the post, except then you mention all the other cultural institutions on campus and seem(?) to use that to argue that the campus is not perfect. That seems a little hyperbolous (as does that non-existent word) also, as well as a little bit troll-worthy.

      Just because there are a bunch of wrongs doesn’t imply that one should not try to make one of them right. Also arguing for one thing does not imply that the original poster is unaware of the other bad things happening.

      (Also is the African American Homecoming or that big event with all the different Asian-based organizations giving students – non-Asians and Chief supporters included- free food really racist?).

      • IRONY
        February 26, 2013

        I assure you, being “troll-worthy” is not my intention at all. My mentioning of of other cultural situations on campus was not to imply that they shouldn’t “try to make one of them right.” My point was that I assumed that as social justice advocates, they probably tend to support those events/institutions. I’m simply trying to get them to apply the same logic and disappointment they have over the Chief issue to those as well. And perhaps by doing so they might be willing to open up to to other viewpoints. In there responses here, they have clearly dismissed any and all opposition, saying that they only allow comments because they are “amusing.” With all do respect, attitudes like that reinforce the stereotype of the uncompromising elitist cultural warrior (either from the right or the left).

  4. Common Sense
    February 26, 2013

    To compare the Chief debate to the Ku Klux Klan is absurd and ridiculous. The Chief debate is clearly a non-issue, but a select few so called “activists” want to instigate the debate on racism and cause a controversy on campus. I’m sorry, but supporting the chief or staying silent does NOT mean being actively discriminatory. That is an extremely narrow mindset, so you’re telling me that by not actively speaking out against the Chief, I am in fact a racist against Native Americans?

    Please, get over yourselves. I know you want to be the gung-ho activists and attract attention to yourselves because you think you’re working for the greater good, but instead you neglect the real issues at hand. Please actually realize that you’re fighting for a cause that needs no attention. To automatically assume the majority of students are racist and participating in a discriminatory manner is extremely low. Please do something better with your time.

    Common Sense.

  5. L
    February 26, 2013

    Wow Edmund. We live in a post-racial society? Is that why a professor of UIUC was stabbed 6 inches in the throat by a man who judged him by his RACE? Is that why an Indian man was pushed in front of a train by a woman who thought he was a terrorist because of his RACE? Is that why I still constantly hear insensitive and derogatory remarks directed towards me because of my RACE? Do you even understand the devastation appropriated images have on people of color? It perpetuates a stereotypical representation and guess what, it moves us much further away from a “post-racial” society than you could ever imagine.

    • IRONY
      February 26, 2013

      Just curious, why do you only mention the race-based attacks perpetrated by whites? As mentioned previously, there have also been local cases of hate crimes by minorities as well.

    • Common Sense
      February 26, 2013

      A few isolated incidents and not mentioning the entire story. Why do I never hear the attacks on whites committed by minorities? Apparently to the biased media, they are just regular crimes, but when whites commit crimes they are seen as hate crimes? Can you explain that for me? Oh please, I’m a minority myself, but sometimes you have to step off your high horse and realize there is more to the story than meets the eye.I’m tired of hearing the victim card.

      To mention a few instances that have happened over the course of months or years is shying away from the truth of the matter. You neglect the other stories that aren’t mentioned in the media.

      • Vinny
        February 26, 2013

        Crimes against “whites” ARE race-based crimes, so it does nothing to further the argument that we’re in a “post-racial” society to mention crimes committed by minorities against whites in the name of race.

        While “the truth of the matter” may be that the few racial attacks on minorities mentioned in this thread were isolated, the real “truth of the matter” is that we do not, in fact, live in a post-racial or ‘colorless’ society – otherwise there’d be no racial crimes (against minorities or whites, they’re both races remember?).

        Hyperboles aside, the post shed light on an issue that seems to be prevalent in many cases (this includes professional race-based team names) and that is that tradition does NOT imply right. We do not have a right to choose whatever team name we want, though we (clearly) can complain about the team names as much as we want.

        Majority also does not imply ‘right.’ Just because team X, Y, and Z have racial stereotyping names/mascots does not mean that it is okay for Team I to have the same type of name/mascot.

        The question that this post answers is whether or not it is, then, right to change Team I’s mascot so that it does not reflect the (negative) cultural stereotypes that the old Team I used to permeate (mal-intent or not).

        I (and the Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni) argue that it is right to make this change since the strengths are that we can avoid having racial stereotyping mascot.

        The argument against: Because it’s tradition and because racial stereotypes exists elsewhere.

  6. IRONY
    February 26, 2013

    Oh the irony! A social justice advocate categorizing “white people” together and making assumptions about their goals and intentions. Is it only white people who think about it as a hobby? Or can black, asian, hispanic, and other people think of it like that as well? I’m just curious. After all, we’re trying to be fair and equal here, right?

    • IRONY
      February 26, 2013

      I’ll have to admit, it was a pretty pointed statement I made, but considering the topic of the initial post and seeing the tweet on the side of this blog page page, I couldn’t help but think of the irony.

      With respect though, do you think there is no legitimate discussion to be had on this topic? That there are no reasonable points to be made from the “other side”? Or just that there haven’t been any worthy points posted here in this forum, and therefore they amuse you? I certainly think there is a distinction to be made between the two.

      I certainly agree that this issue is very relevant, and many points in your post are well-founded. But you should admit that making comparisons with the KKK is ridiculous and undermines worthwhile discussion. It’s just one step short of fulfilling Godwin’s law of internet argument.

    • Fellow Observer
      February 26, 2013

      —this isn’t helping Suey. Sparking anger into other people is just going to fuel them. There are many items that are in your article that should not have been discussed, and there are so many people who are under educated in the matter of racial injustice. Some of the comments from your friends on Facebook just make the matter worse. It just does not make sense to go for the attention in writing an article that brings up bereavement and anger towards others. It only allows for you to “smirk” and watch as people all around either support or disapprove what you are doing. If you are going to write on a cause, write it for the cause and not for your own enjoyment. If you truly feel for this movement, then you wouldn’t be feeling this emotion towards pushing the approve button to allow others to uproar over a comment. Comments like this from you only push those who thought that they supported you away, and make them question if you are crazy or actually logically writing something.

      –As for your article, you really should think about how you are putting your viewpoint out there. Relating in the same article the KKK and the Chief supporters is way out of line. I am a quarter native american and do not at all call myself a racist. I view the Chief as a symbol of recognition and honor. After such oppression for many years, we are now able to show off our traditions and heritage through a symbol. Chief Illiniwek is supported by the Peoria Native American group, supported by many through out the nation, and most importantly you have to be a Native American to even wear/dance as the Chief. The current Chief is a student at the University of Illinois and is a direct descendent of Native Americans. So if just a “white person” is putting on the garb and dancing then I could see where this is an injustice, but that isn’t happening here. How about you take the view and stand point as a Native American instead of a Korean American. You can write your article and say the viewpoints of Native Americans, but you do not have the right to say the Chief is an injustice to all Native American people.

  7. Cooper
    February 26, 2013

    Suey. You really need to think about things you post more. In all seriousness. All I’ve ever seen you do is create enemies online.I don’t care how successful you are. Does God want you to boast? I am not judging, just admonishing. I know there is a plank in my eye, but goodness gracious it’s not like I’m acting it’s not there.
    I know you have strong beliefs, I just ask you to consider others views every once in a while instead of putting yourself above them. All that does is make everyone angry, and it gets everyone no where. It makes a bigger divide between your side and the other side. That is never good. Ever. It’s always gotta be about bridging the gap and learning as much as you can.
    I just think you overreact to this entire thing. All the current students and alumni that support the chief do so with good intentions. He is our symbol and he is also a symbol of native americans. If nothing else, isn’t it good to remember the native americans and what we did to them, and how we should never do that again? What better way than to honor them with a reminder at every football game? Or every basketball game. I just don’t see the problem and never will unless those who are against the chief provide solid evidence that there is actual native american opposition to the chief, and not just a bunch of liberal kids from the suburbs thinking that they are keeping minorities from getting offended.

    • Romans 5.18-21
      February 26, 2013

      Hear hear. Suey what you are trying to do is admirable, but your methods are counterproductive. I personally feel the only way we can address racial issues is through voluntarily sharing our culture and experiences organically. We cannot solve this societal cancer by demanding acquisition to a particular viewpoint because the speaker occupies a moral highground. Men and women are creatures of sin and bias, we have no real moral authority over each other.

      Suey, you are a crusader for social justice. Your faith in the certainty of your own beliefs gives you the strength to act to correct injustices. This is what makes you so passionate and it is why you are great for social justice. However the same fervor and moral certainty makes you blind and dismissive towards other viewpoints. To others your viewpoints seem close-minded and you appear hypocritical and autocratic. Your actions seem imperious and register as if you’re trying to force opinions onto others. Naturally they resist, and resistance builds discontent. Thus a wedge is driven between people and minds are closed. Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing and keep the peace, rather than challenging others and create unnecessary resistance and setbacks to needed change.

      I feel everyone is flawed, and everyone is a little bit racist. Only when everyone views themselves as both a victim and an oppressor can we make true progress towards effective social justice. We must always look inwards before we may speak outwards. We must always question our own beliefs before we condemn those of others.

      Alas, I ramble. Perhaps my point can be more concisely concluded by a song.

  8. A Native American Myself
    February 26, 2013

    What is the major racist issue you have with the Chief? Is it his garb, dance, title, or something else? If the first then would making the dress accurate placate you? If the second would a more traditional approach be more to your liking? His title as Chief Illiniwick? If you have an issue with the name then you should be moving to have the name Illini removed entirely.

    Oh, and as for inclusion of whites, blacks, latinos, etc and not the Native Americans – you already showed what the issue is! Having less than 50 people on the campus as a whole is not a sound economic – or social – reason to demand that you have your way, especially when not even half of the 41 people were undersigned at the end of your rant.

  9. SLH
    February 26, 2013

    @On behalf of Cooper – Check out the documentary “In Whose Honor” for “evidence that [Native Americans] across the nation are offended…”

    ► 2:37► 2:37
    Jun 30, 2008 – Uploaded by byrdslover16

    • IRONY
      February 26, 2013

      I’m not sure whether you are an author or not, but I urge you and the authors to actively look for opinions from the “other side” of the argument as well. Key in any fruitful discussion is the ability to realize that both sides have something legitimate to offer. I urge you to read this interesting article that is very relevant. While you say that having a Native American mascot does nothing but promote racism, others see it differently, and as an opportunity for cultural exchange and learning. I urge you to at least consider that there are other worthwhile opinions in addition to yours.

  10. IRONIC
    February 26, 2013

    First off, I am horrified to hear that you have received death threats. That is one of the most disappointing and reprehensible things I have heard in a long time, and to have anyone from this university react that way is shameful. I also want to apologize for pointing out a personal tweet of yours. Like I said, I saw it on this blog and rushed to analysis, without, like you mentioned, understanding the context behind it. I also want to commend you for being courageous enough to publicly stand up for what you believe in, though we obviously disagree.

    I do not know you personally, but I use an anonymous name on here for specific reasons. I have been quickly lambasted before in similar discussions about race, racism, discrimination, etc, ironically because of my skin color. And especially when the original post likens Chief supporters to members of the KKK, I hope you understand my frustration and reasons for not wanting my name to be out there.

    As a last point, I want to echo a point made, apparently by some of your friends on here. I honestly commend you for standing up for your beliefs, though I urge you to reconsider how you do it. If your intention is to foster a meaningful and productive discussion on the issue, your letter does exactly the opposite. It indirectly links Chief supporters to the KKK and violent criminals. labeling an entire group of people as intentional racists. While there are certainly many Chief supporters who will make their ignorance clear in this debate, there are many meaningful ideas and opinions that differ from your own on this topic, and they deserve to be heard and discussed.

  11. K
    February 26, 2013

    I would just like to point out that at a Pro-Chief rally in the spring of 2010, FIRE, a first amendment right advocacy group, speaking on behalf of the pro-chief student group, made the comparison to the KKK and the Neo-nazis. They set the precedence.

  12. K
    February 26, 2013

    Also, I have another name to add to the undersigned: Lily Medina, class of 1995

  13. Pingback: The Chief steals, erases cultures of Native Americans | Critical Spontaneity

  14. move
    May 5, 2013

    Great blog post. Its useful information.

  15. Megan
    August 3, 2013

    In my mind, each white American is racist. The difference is whether they speak that out or not. Even if they don’t say, most people can feel that. And, I thought America is a tolerant nation for various races, In fact the only STYLE that American people can accept is the American way. Culture and custom from other countries are usually measured by the American standard, and usually not good in American’s eyes. They think this is quite normal and they think they are always right.

  16. pipi
    August 3, 2013

    At beginning of this year I made mistake, though only a small mistake, my advisor will make me uncomfortable from time to time. When I got many new results, I can tell it’s not good, because it’s done by me. I ‘m still not one in the group, though I tried my best and felt exhausted. From time to time I think if I was a white American student, I will be treated in a much better way as the American students. And no, by law, he’s not racist. He is just one among many others that treated me unfair and they never never realized that and thought they are always right.

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