Haven't heard of the Coachella Valley Arabs? Well, you're about to. Coachella Valley High School, in Southern California, uses an Arab as its team name and mascot, and the tradition is now drawing fresh criticism from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Speaking with Aljazeera America, Abed Ayoud, the ADC's legal and policy director, described the mascot as "basically an angry ‘Arab’ head – hooknose, long beard, headscarf and all." The caricature adorns school buildings and signs. The library is decorated with cartoony Middle Eastern characters riding a large book like a magic carpet. At halftime of football games, a dastardly, big-headed mascot watches a girl in harem attire do the "Genie Dance."
In a letter from the ADC to Darryl Adams, superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, dated November 1 (link to PDF), the organization asserted that:
Use of the word [Arab] and such imagery perpetuates demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans. The "Arab" mascot image is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated. By allowing continued use of the term and imagery, you are commending and enforcing the negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group, millions of whom are citizens of this nation.
The school has been known as the Arabs since 1910, and the story goes that the name was chosen because of the date palm trees that flourished in the area after being imported from northern Africa. Indeed, the California desert region picked up numerous faux Middle Eastern touches, including architecture and town names such as Mecca. The gimmick of a desert oasis was seen as a possible draw for tourists — but the dream of an orientalist's Solvang didn't quite come to pass. Many residents say the team name and mascot are a tribute to Middle Eastern culture, although the Aljazeera America artice suggests that the populace isn't terribly informed about the region and people they are paying tribute to.
For Native Americans who object to Native team names such as the Washington Redskins, the fact that an Arab group is publicly challenging the Coachella Valley Arabs can only be a good sign. The debate over the Redskins mascot and logo often seems to take place in a vacuum: Comparisons of "Redskin" to verboten racial slurs for African Americans haven't convinced the team's fans, while other defenders misguidedly assert that Redskins isn't any more offensive than Vikings or Cowboys. Here, though, is a similar debate without the fig leaf of a shared history.
(Additionally, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has been in the tricky position of having to fight wars in the Middle East without fanning anti-Arab sentiment, and the TSA goes to great lengths to avoid racial profiling when screening airplane passengers. Within this context, the Coachella Valley Arab mascot looks like the sort of World War II-era racial propaganda the U.S. Government has taken great pains to avoid.)
The bottom line is that "Arabs," like "Redskins," are an exotic other to the people who wear the jerseys and cheer for the team. There's no credibility to the claim of "tribute" in the cae of the Coachella Valley Arab. And once the "tribute" idea is off the table, what remains isn't pretty: Caricature, stereotype, and dehumanization, with a net effect of reducing a diverse population to a Disney cartoon.
Superintendent Adams has said he will discuss the issue of the Coachella Valley Arabs with the school's Board of Trustees at the previously-scheduled November 21 meeting.