When a mascot is offensive

Coachella Valley High School's mascot is seen in 2010.
Coachella Valley High School’s mascot is seen in 2010.
(Jay Calderon / Associated Press)
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What team nickname would you give to a high school in Granada Hills? Something Spanish-sounding, to go with “Granada,” perhaps?

The folks at Granada Hills High School must have instead focused on the “Hills” part way back when, because the teams, the students, the teachers — they’re all called the Highlanders. As in the Scottish Highlands. The marching band dresses in tartan kilts and includes bagpipers; rally squads dance the Highland fling. The wonderfully incongruous name is no slam on the real Highland Scots; in fact, Scottish American groups embrace the school and its salute to their culture.

So it’s the same with the Coachella Valley High School Arabs, right?

Not quite. Instead, an Arab American group wants the school to get rid of the field mascot, a caricatured Arab that can hardly be called a celebration of culture. And the group is right.


It’s not that Scots have better senses of humor than Arabs, or that one group is fair game while another is off limits based on some index of political correctness. Nor is it that the founders of towns in Coachella Valley, in Riverside County, meant any disrespect when they adopted fanciful themes out of “The Arabian Nights” to promote their date-growing industry or their desert climate.

But the school mascot as presently depicted on insignia is pretty mean, with its hooked nose, its hostile, hooded eyes and its unpleasant scowl. It’s one thing to have a grinning tiger or a snarling bear leading a team into football battle; it’s quite another to have as your symbol a cartoonish figure meant to represent — negatively — a real population of real people.

The dividing line between celebratory and offensive may be hazy and subject to changing societal norms, but it does exist. On the far side of that line, for example, is the Washington Redskins, a team whose logo shows a dignified Native American but whose team name is an unacceptable ethnic slur. The Cleveland Indians? The Atlanta Braves? Closer to the line, although it is a legitimate question whether even naming the team after an ethnic group is more exploitation than embrace.

Is it beyond the pale for a high school team to even be named the Arabs (or for that matter the Moors, as at Alhambra High School, or the rugby Saracens of suburban London)? When grappling with that question, let’s consider the stereotypes and slurs once hurled at Scots that could have been turned into a nasty logo or mascot but were rejected in Granada Hills in favor of respect. When it comes to team traditions, a little bit of respect can go a long way.