Arab Mascot Draws Criticism; School Says It's Sign Of Respect

A Southern California high school is refusing to change its football team name, insisting that “The Arabs” isn’t meant as a form of disrespect and that the mascot, a snarling, hook-nosed man in a turban, shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative Arab stereotype. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) disagrees, and is demanding that Coachella Valley High School make some changes.

"The 'Arab' mascot image is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated," wrote Abed Ayoub, director of the legal and policy affairs group, in a letter to the school. "By allowing continued use of the term and imagery, you are commending and enforcing the negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group, millions of whom are citizens of this nation."

In addition to the mascot, the high school band dresses in traditional Arab garb (or, more accurately, what it perceives to be traditional Arab garb), and a girl dressed as a genie dances during halftime performances. The side of the school also features a mural of the mascot, scowling menacingly at passerby.

Let there be no misunderstanding: The mascot is a crude, cartoonish and offensive stereotype, and the school’s defiance comes across as rank ignorance and insensitivity. If the school has any sense, it’ll change the name and the mascot ASAP and accept that they’re living in the 21st Century. It bears mentioning, though, that the city does actually have a long-standing and generally positive connection to the Middle East, to which — in its own misguided way — the football team’s name is an attempt to pay tribute.

In the 1900s, the Department of Agriculture acquired date shoots from Iraq and planted them in Coachella Valley in an attempt to take advantage of the region’s desert climate. It was a success: The orchids bloomed and were a huge economic boon to the city, and Coachella Valley now produces 95 percent of dates in the United States. In tribute to the area of the world from which the first date shoots came, the city named several of its streets after Middle Eastern cities, like as Damascus and Baghdad, and called the high school’s football teams the Arabs.

“We’re proud of being Arabs,” said Rich Ramirez, president of the school’s alumni association. “It wasn’t to discriminate. It was to say hey, thank you, Middle East, Iraq, Algeria, all those areas.”

So this was probably was done with something resembling good intentions. But the ADC is right that the mascot, whatever the intentions behind it, perpetuates almost every negative Arab stereotype on the books, and needs to be scrapped. Ramirez’s comment that the school chose a “snarling face to instill fear in the opponent” is particularly objectionable, despite his offer to “put a handsome dude” in the costume instead.

“It’s not so much the name but the depiction of the mascot,” said Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl Adams. “We're very sensitive to that and how we're going to work to make sure, maybe sometimes you should have some consultations when we're working with other groups and cultures.”

Adams says that the school board will reevaluate the mascot during the next board meeting, scheduled for November 21st. Let’s hope they realize that, whatever respect the school professes to have for Middle East culture, plastering a sinister-looking Arab stereotype on the side of the building isn’t the best way to show it.

Image: Coachella Valley High School