Wisconsin’s new law–Act 250–allows persons to file a complaint against a school board for its “use of race-based nicknames, logos, mascots and team names.” What is particularly exciting about the new law is that, during the resulting hearing before the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the school board and not the complainant “has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the use of the nickname or team name in connection with the logo or mascot does not promote discrimination, pupil harassment, or stereotyping as defined by the state superintendent by rule.”
According to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, that burden is going to be pretty hard to meet. The Task Force cites research by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg showing white students receive an artificial boost to their self-esteem and self-efficacy while American Indian students experience a decrease in both; the harm is the same whether the images are intended to be “noble” or cartoonish. Moreover, the effects on American Indian students are worse when the use is “approved.” (The Task Force cites other studies as well, including a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology titled “Effect of Exposure to an American Indian Mascot on the Tendency to Stereotype a Different Minority Group,” by Chu Kim-Preito, Sumie Okazaki, Lizabeth Goldstein and Blake Kirschner).
Despite overwhelming evidence of harm, the Task Force reports that, as of May 13, 2010, 35 schools in Wisconsin were still using Native American mascots or logos. That number will certainly go down. For example, Kewaunee School District–one of the first districts to be challenged–has agreed to change its logo.
The most recent challenge was filed by Rain Koepke regarding the Mukwonago High School mascot, and a hearing is scheduled for August 27. In the local paper, a high school student said he, too, wanted to file a complaint and offered his own rebuttal to claims that such mascots and logos are benign and intended to honor American Indians. The student chose to remain anonymous for fear he would be ridiculed for his Native American heritage, which is not apparent by his appearance. The student wrote a four-page essay on the issue, an exerpt of which was published in the local paper. Sadly, in an update in the same paper, MHS Principal Shawn McNulty was quoted as saying “We will present the facts and provide a vigorous defense in support of the Mukwonago School District and our Mukwonago High School logo.”
The new law provides a powerful legal tool to fight racial discrimination, and it opens up an avenue for continued dialogue about race. In particular, it invites conversation about why it is that when people of color say they have been harmed, the response is often disbelief (it’s the “show me your wound and I’ll tell you if it hurts” phenomenon). The fact that a student feels he has to hide his Native American heritage–and the district continues to fight for its mascot–suggests there is much more going on at MHS than can be solved by doing away with the mascot.