With Chief Illiniwek dead and gone, though never forgotten by his loyal supporters, we now have a very clear and pressing issue both at the University of Illinois, and at all campuses impacted by the racist and selectively enforced policies of the NCAA. What should we choose to replace to dearly loved symbols which have been so heartlessly snatched away from us?
In honor of the people who launched the racist campaign against Native American mascots, I suggest The Straw man. Lately we have seen a number of individuals in the anti-Native American camp suggest that having a student dress up in Native American costume is the equivalent of wearing blackface. They then go on to suggest that we the loyal supporters have no arguments against their claims. They foolishly attempt to prove this assertion through the use of straw man arguments, such as this one presented pictorially by an artist for the Daily Illini in his comic dragon and goat. Evidently these individuals are unaware of the fact that a Straw Man argument is a logical fallacy, and so by resorting to it, they are in effect proving themselves wrong.
As a matter of fact, using Native American costume is not at all like blackface, and our argument is absolutely not that it is “tradition” which somehow makes everything all right. Instead of actually investigating our arguments, these individuals instead take the untenable position of a Straw Man, and after knocking down the fake argument they have set up, declare victory and go home. It is hard to blame them, however, as it is obvious from whom they have learned their questionable debating skills.
Fundamentally our arguments come from logic and reason. Let us look closely at the accusation. Blackface is, as we all know, a performance style that was popular in the early days of show business which involved a white individual painting their face black to appear as if they were another race. For the accusation against Native American mascots to hold water, we would have to see evidence of the individuals trying to make themselves look like they were racially a member of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Since we know that, as a race, these individuals did not have a specific costume that was universal to all members of their ethnic group we begin to punch holes in their argument. We must then surmize that perhaps if students were painting their skin red, or bronze, or otherwise trying to alter their apparent race, this comparison might be valid. However this has not happened, proving that at heart this isn’t an issue of disguising race, but instead of using a costume.
Wearing the costume of a Sioux Chieftain is not like Blackface, it is akin to dressing up like a knight in shining armor, wearing the wig and petticoat of a colonial gentleman, or putting on a kilt and tartan like a Scottish nobleman. This use of costume as a form of expression is a long honored tradition the world over. One need only go to a Civil War reenactment, a Colonial village, or a Renaissance Fair to see how much we as a society love to honor other cultures by dressing up as them. No one would even think of suggesting these were akin to blackface, because we all know there is no relation. One is trying to disguise one’s race, the other is simply honoring a culture by appreciating their ceremonial dress.
The opponents of Native American imagery need to grow up and drop their racist habits. Most of us learned how to play well with others and how to share back in pre-school. We also learned that for a policy to be fair it must be applied equally, and with no exceptions. No one who ever saw the Chief perform thought he was actually a Native American, there was no attempt to portray racial characteristics. They saw him for what he was, a man in a costume, celebrating a tradition and the beauty of the imagery held by a Chieftan. No one was oppressed by this, just as no Europeans are oppressed when an Asian plays World of Warcraft, using imagery derived from European ancestry. Sharing our costume, culture, and heritage is wonderful beautiful thing, not oppression.
But in the mean time, until logic and reason can win over their racist hearts, I suggest we take a play from their own book and make our new mascot something they obviously honor and love. The Straw man.