Illinois Still on the Offensive

By Mike Wise
Saturday, January 27, 2007

On Facebook, the popular, student-driven social Web forum, a University of Illinois undergraduate began a group late last year called "If They Get Rid of the Chief I'm Becoming a Racist."

These were two students' postings on the site, aimed specifically at an American Indian woman who wants the school to stop using a caricature of her culture as its mascot.

"What they don't realize is that there never was a racist problem before," wrote one, "but now I hate redskins and hope all those drunk, casino owning bums die."

"Apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux descent," another student wrote. "Which means what, you ask? The Sioux indians are the ones that killed off the Illini indians, so she's just trying to finish what her ancestors started. I say we throw a tomohowk into her face."

One hundred and ten students joined the online group, which supports Chief Illiniwek. Since the 1920s, the Chief has been portrayed by a white kid in war paint and headdress, who solemnly dances at halftime of Illinois football and men's basketball games. At Illinois, dressing up and playing Indian is called tradition.

The woman opposed to the caricature hasn't slept much the past few months and still is awaiting the outcome of a university investigation into the Web forum, which may lead to at least one student's expulsion from school.

"Part of me is stuck in the idea that some crazy person is out there who intends me physical harm," she said by telephone. Requesting anonymity for personal-safety reasons, she added: "The other part of me knows I've probably been operating in a very dangerous climate for a long time and I'm just now admitting it. I mean, there are 110 people signed up. I play these psychological games with myself every day just to get to class and walk on campus."

Crazy, no? We get all lathered up because college football does not have a playoff system. We produce talk shows about gender equity. We want our student athletes paid, as if that will somehow right another NCAA wrong.

Yet when we come across the most serious and offensive issue on campus -- a hurtful reminder to a people of their grave mistreatment, a blatant misappropriation of their religious and spiritual practices -- we go into denial. A woman is physically threatened by a Neanderthal kid and we want to rail about the BCS again.

Eliminating the Chief won't suddenly make the Champaign-Urbana campus a utopia for diversity; this is a school where a fraternity recently held a taco-and-tequila night in which kids dressed up as Mexican gardeners and pregnant mothers all in the name of good, Greek society fun.

But the discourse and debate has distilled a university's responsibility in the matter. By refusing to retire the mascot, at some level the university's Board of Trustees tacitly condones the backlash on campus. Part of the message it sends students is that it's okay for them to feel persecuted for their belief in racial stereotyping. The subtext in keeping the Chief amounts to a code of acceptance.

Let's be clear: You can't use one ethnicity as a symbol and at the same time expect every student to be treated in an equal manner.

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