Opinion A New York school district confronts hatred in its yearbook — if not its mascot name

(Ellen Weinstein/For The Washington Post)
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Cambridge Central School District, about an hour from Albany in Upstate New York, has been dealing with two potential sources of embarrassment: its yearbook and its mascot.

Both issues, in this predominantly White rural district, are about race.

In late May, the district’s high school halted distribution of its 2020-2021 yearbook after discovering that a senior boy had named Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as his favorite book. When I read about this, I first thought administrators should let it be. Years from now, when other alums are ruing unflattering perms or indefensible shoulder pads, this kid can regret having produced hard evidence of being an antisemite and/or a jackass. Let the record stand, I thought, if only so we can briefly consider holding future governors accountable for it.

But I see why that doesn’t work. Yearbooks may feature the students, but they represent the school. The kid might or might not eventually be embarrassed by his bigotry, but the school that let him show off that bigotry definitely will be.

So the school recalled the yearbooks, which, it turns out, is not uncommon. Yearbooks have been recalled because a sign saying “F**k Police” was spotted in a picture of a Black Lives Matter rally. They have been recalled because a senior’s chosen quote was “Build that wall.” Because a Black student was designated most likely to "become a wanted criminal.” Because someone slipped in a Hitler quote and attributed it to George Floyd.

Speaking of Hitler (again), the Whitesville (N.Y.) Central School District recalled its 2018-2019 yearbook because the new social studies teacher was quoted explaining at length why the genocidal dictator was his favorite person in history. In the subsequent outcry, the superintendent blamed the student-run yearbook club for an “incomplete” quote that resulted in the statement “being mistakenly taken out of context.”

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But in what kind of context could praising a mass murderer make sense? What kind of person is this teacher, and what kind of school hired him? Are these institutions embarrassed because “accidental” racist content doesn’t represent them or because it does?

Which brings me back to Cambridge, where the question of whether something racist represents the school has dominated the entire school year. Not “Mein Kampf” — the district swiftly removed those pages and spliced in corrected ones — but something much more embarrassing and much harder to fix: its mascot.

Cambridge’s mascot is the “Indians.” A drawing of a Native American man in a feathered headdress features prominently on the district’s website, Facebook page, its gym floors and walls, its team uniforms and its fan gear.

At a school board meeting last week, after months of contentious community debate, the board introduced a resolution to retire the mascot name and imagery, effective July 1.

That’s soon, but it would be a long time coming. In 2001, the New York state education commissioner requested that New York schools “end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.” Cambridge, along with dozens of other schools, declined: 31 public high schools in New York State continue to use “Indian” as a mascot name. (That doesn’t count “Warriors,” “Raiders,” “Tomahawks” or “Braves.”)

But 2020 was a watershed year, in which even the Washington Football Team finally agreed to change its name. In the summer, John Kane, an indigenous activist and Cambridge alum, started a petition to retire the mascot. It reads, in part, “Native mascots are dehumanizing and promote a damaging racial stereotype of an extremely marginalized people … It treats Native people as mere relics of the past; as if they no longer exist. It is erasure. It is genocide.”

Many Cambridge residents disagree, including Dillon Honyoust, a member of the Onondaga Nation. He started a petition to save the mascot, has campaigned fiercely to preserve it and was subsequently elected to the school board in a landslide. His argument is about pride, tradition and — like Kane’s — erasure. “Removing the Cambridge Indian name and logo,” he said on his Facebook page, “would be contributing to the erasing of the American Indian.” As if racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation were keeping the race itself alive.

The resolution on the table last week came to a different conclusion. It cited numerous advocacy groups calling for the end of Native American mascots, which “perpetuate narrow stereotypes of Native Americans that can harm children” as well as Cambridge’s own policy of “maintaining a positive and inclusive learning environment.” It pledged to continue displaying old awards and plaques, and to use the current uniforms until they wore out. It directed the board to develop a process to find a new name.

The resolution failed. Well, technically, it was tabled; board members agreed that they would vote for it only after it was altered with an amendment to keep the “Indian” name and “current imagery associated with that nickname should be reviewed with changes considered.” The amendment, in other words, will essentially invalidate the resolution it amends. The mascot for the almost all-White Cambridge Central schools will continue to be "Indians.”

The board’s consensus was that the community simply wasn’t ready for change.

In his opening statement on the issue, referring to both the “Mein Kampf” episode and the mascot debate, School Board President Neil Gifford bemoaned the fact that Cambridge’s reputation “has become one of racial insensitivity.”

“That’s not who we are,” he said. But for now it apparently is.

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