An Open Letter to Allies in the Fight Against Racist Mascots,
This letter is inspired by a Great Plains Action Society comrade who has been on the ground fighting against the racist mascotry in Indianola, Iowa. They raised important questions about the ways in which non-Indigenous allies can best contribute to the fight against racist, Indigenous-harmful imagery. The following is an attempt to provide some guidelines for advocating on the behalf of a Indigenous-centering issues as a non-Indigenous person.
I would first like to emphasize with the trepidation non-Indigenous allies experience in trying to navigate the complicated space of advocacy and solidarity with a people you don’t belong to when aligning with them in the fight against harmful systems. If it is at all assuring, please know that it is a sign of good allyship if you are questioning the place and role of advocates. Too often people assume that good intentions are sufficient for good allyship. This is not the case. Impact is far more important than intent. Good intentions can lead to drastically harmful consequences.
One of the most important things a non-Native ally can do when advocating for the removal of racists mascots and imagery is to bring the focus of discussion back to the most important issue at hand- the fact that this imagery is harmful to children, both Native and not. Very often mascot imagery is presented in terms of being “offensive.” This derails the conversation by shifting the focus to emotionally-based arguments about what is and is not offensive. While this imagery may be offensive, and may make some people angry, that’s not the point. The most important thing is that it harms children, all children, and non-Native parents are in a unique position to speak to how these mascots/this imagery harms their non-Native children. In an NPR interview clinical psychologist Michael Friedman asserted the following:
“A series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots ... self-esteem goes down, belief in community goes down, belief in achievement goes down, and mood goes down. And these effects are primarily among Native American adolescents. Similarly, if someone who is non-Native American sees a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their association with the Native American community also gets worse. So whoever you are, if you see these images your view of Native Americans gets worse.”
One specific problem that non-Native allies might face in this fight is that often fringe Indigenous organizations (NAGA) are trotted out to show that Native people support the use of racist mascots and imagery. The fact that they are Native is supposed to be authoritative on the matter. Here is a clear instance of shifting the focus from the harm that this imagery causes children to a debate about who or what determines offensiveness. It doesn’t matter if NAGA says this imagery isn’t offensive, it is harmful to children (Native or not).
As a final reminder, there are things to avoid when engaging as an ally. Don’t attempt to speak on behalf of Indigenous people. In this case, racist mascots/imagery harms non-Native children as well. As non-Natives, you are in a place to speak to that harm, a harm that many people could find relatable. Additionally, please resist the urge to make arguments from analogy that liken racism against one group to racism against another. Arguments from analogy are good for making convincing points, but in reality the unique and intimate histories of different peoples’ struggles with white supremacy make racism an inappropriate analog. We can make our point without having to bring more racism into the conversation, and we should respect that the harm others have been subjected to is not ours to use, even with the best intentions.
It’s very important we have non-Native allies in this fight against racist mascots/imagery. We don’t have the numbers to fight this on our own. Help us to continually drive home the message that we need to make a change, because the use of racist imagery is causing harm to all children. Thank all of you who have been longtime allies in this fight, and we warmly welcome any newcomers. Know that checking in is always encouraged if you have any questions or concerns.
Great Plains Action Society