February 24, 2011

Seattle University's "Red(Mo)hawk" promotion

A newspaper for the Seattle University Redhawks, formerly the Chieftains, defends its "red mohawk" photos:

Editorial:  No Redhawk mohawks?As we were preparing to go to print Tuesday, we received an e-mail from the Office of Multicultural Affairs expressing concern about the RedZone sponsored tailgate party that occurred before the Seattle University vs. UW basketball game Tuesday evening at Key Arena. The nature of their concern related to the "Red(Mo)hawk" hairstyling promotion. OMA asked RedZone to rename the event the "Red Hairstyle" event and asked The Spectator to refrain from publishing photos of student fans who had styled their hair in a red mohawk for the game.

We understand OMA's concern about cultural appropriation of a hairstyle that originated with the Mohawk Native American tribe, however, it is the duty of a newspaper to publish facts. If students wearing mohawk hairstyles are depicted in our photos, they should be used as an opportunity to discuss sensitivity among students. Not publishing the photos would be hiding potential insensitivities or lack of cultural knowledge, which are precisely issues that should be brought to the attention of the Seattle U community. And if we are talking about mohawks specifically, the punk movement of the 1960s-80s served to effectively re-appropriate the mohawk. It is unfortunate but true. Alternatively, moccasins have become popular as shoes for non-Native Americans. Dreadlocks are traditionally Rastafarian but widely worn by Americans. The perpetuation of cultural appropriation does not make it right but it happens.
Comment:  The fans are obviously still attached to their beloved "Chieftains" nickname. To "honor" Chief Seattle, apparently, they've adopted mohawk hairstyles from a tribe 3,000 miles away and painted them red. Both actions contribute to the idea of Indians as "red savages."

In its defense, the Spectator says, "It is the duty of a newspaper to publish facts." It's also the newspaper's duty to exercise journalistic standards and choose which facts to publish. It's a fact that Seattle-area Indians weren't red and didn't wear mohawks. Did the newspaper publish that?

The Spectator explains that the photos "should be used as an opportunity to discuss sensitivity among students." Why the passive tense? Did the newspaper discuss the stereotypical message of the photos in the captions or an article? Or is it waiting for someone else to raise the sensitivity issue? It's the newspaper's job to present both sides of an issue, not to publish "factual" photos uncritically.

Sounds to me like the Office of Multicultural Affairs called the newspaper on its stereotypical photos and the newspaper didn't like the criticism. Next time, don't publish stereotypical photos without noting the stereotypes. Or don't publish them, period. The antics of a few sports fans hardly rises to the level of news.

For more on the subject, see Miami Students Sing "Scalp Song" and Student "Tribe" Shows Team Spirit.

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