Civil Rights Group Challenges High School’s Arab Mascot

Friday, November 08, 2013
Coachella Valley High School's mascot that appears on logos and school clothing (photo: Coachella Valley High School)

How do you get around accusations of racial stereotyping and discrimination when your high school’s team name is the Arabs and your mascot looks like a stereotypical villain from the Middle East?

Defenders of Coachella Valley High School, located in the Mojave Desert outside of Los Angeles, say the mascot was chosen in the 1920s to honor the importance of farming dates—a traditional Middle East food—to the local economy. Nearly all the country’s dates are grown there. The school’s alumni association points a few miles down the road to the town of Mecca.

Last week, an “appalled” American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington sent a letter (pdf) to the Coachella Valley Unified School District demanding that the school dump the Arab, “a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping.” Although the ACD recognized the “context in which the nickname was originally selected,” it said there was no place for this behavior in the 21st Century.

The letter objected to the Arab logo caricature—a man with a large nose, dark beard, traditional Arab head covering and less-than-friendly gaze—and its image plastered all around the school. Stereotypes of belly-dancing harem girls, magic lamps and Arabs on flying carpets abound, including YouTube videos of school sporting event halftime shows. The logo is visible everywhere.   

ADC legal and policy director Abed Ayoub told Al Jazeera it was the worst case of stereotyping he had seen in a decade of civil rights work: “And what makes it worse is that it's coming from a school district. They’re supposed to be teaching kids to respect other cultures.”

Art Montoya, an alumni association director, told USA Today the “Angry Arab” version of the logo was designed in the 1950s and was meant to inspire toughness among school football players.

But even district Superintendent Darryl Adams doesn’t sound like he’s totally buying the justifications. Adams, an African-American from the deep South, told USA Today he has never been comfortable with the name and will be discussing the matter with the school board on November 21.

Alumni and students are divided over the Arab identity. The September 11, 2001, attacks brought new attention to the problematic mascot although not necessarily a heightened sensitivity. Some residents feared an association with terrorists.

The Coachella mascot issue comes amid an intensifying national debate over the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. Even President Barack Obama has weighed in, suggesting the team owner consider changing the name. Billionaire owner Daniel Snyder said he would never do that.    

The name change issue is almost certain to be a hot topic of conversation at today’s local football game between conference rivals. The Arabs play the Indio High School Rajahs.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Arab-Americans Cry Foul over California High School Mascot (by Haya El Nasser and Nadeem Muaddi, Al Jazeera)

California High School's Arab Mascot Draws Ire (by Brett Kelman, USA Today)

High School’s “Arab” Mascot Deemed Offensive (by Joel Landau, New York Daily News)

Letter to Coachella Valley Unified School District (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) (pdf)

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