The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wrestler being forced to cut dreadlocks was manifestation of decades of racial desensitization

Buena Regional High wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut next to the mat just minutes before his match after a referee told him he would forfeit if he didn't have his dreadlocks cut off. (Michael Frankel/Associated Press)

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.

A white referee told a high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit. He took the cut.

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 predominantly white. The Buena community and school district are predominantly white as well.

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 a majority 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.

Attorney for wrestler made to cut dreadlocks condemns referee’s ‘outrageous conduct’

Unlike what happened in New Jersey, 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 composed 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 — Lenape, Shawnee, Cherokee and Seneca — are neither demeaning nor stereotypical,” she said.

New Jersey school district to shun events with referee who forced wrestler to cut dreadlocks

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 because of an injury.

It wasn’t anything physical Johnson suffered during the match that he won last week. Instead, it was the mental anguish he suffered before and afterward. Speziali said Johnson was “emotionally drained” by the incident.

Consider it collateral damage of our long-lived comfort with disrespecting native people, as well as other others.