When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

This is a conversation I really didn’t want to be having. I didn’t think I would have to still be having this conversation. But, we must. Some friends and I (primarily driven by Suey Park) collaboratively worked on this open letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community. If you’re an alum and want in on the signature: tweet, FB, email, or comment. I’ll update periodically. I am happy to add signatures, but will not do so without an explicit statement directed to me stating so. I want to respect people’s autonomy and privacy in this as well.

Dear University of Illinois,

In 6 years, much can be accomplished. Lincoln Hall and the ARC have been renovated, the SDRP has been built, the basketball team has finally beat Indiana, and many of us have walked across stage with a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, though, 6 years has not been enough time to remedy the school’s history of exclusion and cultural appropriation.

Having graduated from the University of Illinois, we are shocked to hear The News-Gazette report that students get to the vote to uphold racism on March 5-6, 2013. Are we really allowing this in the year 2013? This so-called “democratic” system the Student Senate and University uses is incredibly flawed if we point out this whole argument is about protecting underrepresented students, underrepresented meaning “not an adequate amount,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The annual School Report shows there are currently only 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members identifying as Native American on campus. Do we really think this is a fair vote? The results of this ballot will only give Chief supporters a tangible way to prove how massive and in the majority they really are. Allowing students to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students. Or, should we say, continues to allow students to have power over underrepresented students.

The Student Senate and this campus’s administration usually do not take a side when it comes to the Chief; it is out of privilege that neither is forced to take a side. Many students who fight against the Chief do so for survival. We do it because we hope to make the university a more inclusive space for those who come after us. Silence or neutrality chooses the side of the oppressor. More than the expected jeers and sneers from the pro-Chief fans, we will remember your silence. This silence is something commonplace in many atrocious events in this nation’s history. In a space where Chief-fanaticism exists, the silence of the administration not only allows for the growth of this fanaticism, but legitimizes it. The university has had 6 years to educate students on this issues instead of hoping it would die out. Instead, their silence has left students to fight for themselves and amongst themselves.

Less than 100 years ago–in 1916–the Ku Klux Klan was an honorary student organization at the University of Illinois. Since then, the university has continually been a site of racist incidents. To ignore our school’s racist history is not to understand fully the Chief debate. Although we have since then “welcomed” students of color to attend our university, recruitment and retention of students of color is still less than ideal.

Stephanie Fryburg and her colleagues at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan have done multiple psychological studies on the effects of mainstream characterizations of Native imagery on Native students’ self-efficacy and academic well-being. In an article published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Fryburg and her colleagues found that exposure to Native imagery, including images like Chief Illiniwek and Disney’s Pocahontas, had a pronounced negative impact on Native students’ well-being, while the same imagery actually boosted White students’ self-efficacy. Not only does imagery like Chief Illiniwek not properly “honor” Native peoples, it is actively discriminatory in this way when propagated on a college campus. We have seen countless incidents of cultural misappropriation protected as humor or tradition. From the infamous “Tacos and Tequilas” party to commonplace games of “cowboys and Indians,” it becomes evident that not enough has changed. Perhaps we can argue that modern day racism is all in good “humor,” but only one year ago Prof. Dharmapala was stabbed 6-inches into the throat as a result of racist ideology on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Such shocking incidents make us reasonably question the neutrality of such “humor.”

Other times, racism is upheld not as “humor” but as “tradition”. Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Chief supporters feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with. Even those Chief supporters who do not have such connections benefit from a tradition of excavating, destroying, and abusing Native land and culture; nor have they faced the very real and potent difficulties that shape the lives of Native peoples living in this country today. Now our generation fights over the symbol that still remains a reminder of “tradition” to some and of death to others.

Let’s start calling it as it is. The real, choice students will be making on March 5-6th is not simply choosing the Chief or a new mascot. It is choosing whether or not to go backwards and reinstall a racist mascot or choosing to move forward toward new traditions. We can find a mascot that can represent all of us. We can find other things to fight for.

Sincerely,
The Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni

Thaddeus Andracki
Suey Park
Katie O’Brien
Maja Seitz
Andrea Herrera Orrala
Kate Higgs
Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, class of 2010
Melorie Masacupan
Patsy Diaz
HoChie Tsai
Stephanie Anne Ladrera Camba
Erin Andriamahefa
Kimberly Oco
Maria Koularmanis
Shikhank Sharma
Gabriel Machabanski
Nicholas Wood
Meghan Bohardt
Xavier Diaz
Kathlyn Oco
Ariann Sahagún
Jessica Nicholas
John-Ben Soileau
Benjamin Barnes
Erica Manzo
Xanat Sobrevilla
Emma Murdoch
Rae-Anne Montague
Matthew Knight
Pryscilla Bolander
Marina Sivilay
Shola Rufay
Tiffany D. Johnson
Sarah Rowe
Margaret Olson
Gwendolyn Wydra
Sarah Park Dahlen
Marcela Reyes
Peter Odell Campbell
Liz Watts
Jessica Harrison
Samantha Chavez
Samantha Sednek
Richard W. Chang, Esq.
Glynn Davis
Philip Slater
Matthew Francis Rarey
Erin L. Castro
Dawn Scanlon
Bryanna Mantilla
Jessica Kursman
Samuel Jesse
Jerry Diaz
Robyn Bianconi
Thomas O’Malley
Hilary Morris
Esther Ikoro
Patrick Brown, Champaign native, UIUC alum
America Campos
Liz Elsen
Ashley Rayner
Dan Wright
Masood Muhammad Haque
Jean Lee
Alexandra Bellis
Christine Dasko
Eric Schacht
Sunah Suh
Ryne Dionisio
Kristin Drogos
Aaron Parker
Tina-Marie Smith
Lucas McKeever
Steven Rosado
Sam Sednek
Zane Ranney
Christie Barchenger
Bert Berla
Andrew Y. Kim
Lorrie Pearson
Hector Mandel
Brian Bell
Rudy Leon
Benjamin Stone
Bryan Anderson
Chloe Edgar
Jessica E. Moyer
Deborah E. Dorsey
Ingbert Schmidt
Mathew J. Carroll-Schmidt
Mary E. McCormack
Alex Orozco
Debbie Reese
Elizabeth Berfield
Kent Carrico
Dana Robinson, Ph.D.
Mark R. Linder
Regina Serpa
Emily Henkels
Konrad Taube
Leah Zinthefer King
Sivling Heng
Roy Saldaña, Jr.
Lee Roberts
Thomas Webb
Jessica Dickson
Lily Huang
Viraj Patel
Justine Chan
Emily Wilson
T.J. Tallie
A.J. Kim
Berenice Ruhl
Jennifer M. Snapp
Kathleen Bowman North
Rafter Sass Ferguson
Raúl A. Mora, Ph.D.
Ryan Kuramitsu
Julian Ignacio
Thomas Joseph Ferrarell
Maren Williams
Victoria Murillo
Rosalie Morales Kearns, MFA
Stephanie Chang
Valerie Enriquez
Lukasz Wojtaszek
Amber Buck
Mike Suguitan
Brian Kung
Janaki Patel
Homari Oda
Suraiya Rashid
Christine Asidao
Archaa Shrivastav
Kathryn Conley Wehrmann
Dustin Lovett
Cynthia Wang
Kati Hinshaw
Isabel Diaz
Pei-Lynn Juang
Phillip N. Lambert
Jane Emmons
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Amanda Beer, PhD
Ruxandra Costescu, PhD
Scott Kimball
Amanda Karkula
Lynsee Melchi
Victoria Mwansa Seward
Frank Hassler
Julia Dossett Morgan
Lauren M. Graham
Robert Mejia
Catherine Knight Steele
James D. Bunch
Gretchen Madsen, MLIS
B.A. Davis-Howe
Eric Mills
Rose Stremlau
Ian Binnington, Ph.D.
Carlos Daniel Rosa, Student Senator Emeritus
Amy Strohmeier Gort, Ph.D.
K’La Albertini
Eva Au
Guillermo Delgado
Cassie Connor
Michelle Birkett, Ph.D.
Adrian Bettridge-Wiese
Anusha Narayanan
Julie Boone
John Miller
Jeffrey DiScala
Emily Litchfield
Tyler Guenette
Sidoni Gonzalez
BWS Johnson

edited 2/25/13 22:59 to add signatures
edited 2/25/13 22:35 with more signatures and signature caveat in preamble
edited 2/26/13 11:07 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 12:00 with more signatures, changed “Illini” in 2nd to last p. to “Chief supporters”
edited 2/26/13 13:45 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 16:15, more signatures
edited 2/26/13 19:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 6:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 14:24, more signatures
edited 2/27/13, 20:10, a few more
edited 2/28/13, 20:52, one more
edited 3/3/13, 12:03, one more signature
edited 3/12/13, 18:09, another signature added

The Mayans Weren’t “Wrong”…You Were

I was prepared to say exactly zero things about the Mayan apocalypse prediction debacle, until my friend Debbie Reese made a point on Twitter that I’d been turning over in my head vaguely, but hadn’t concretized as well as she did.

The Mayans weren’t wrong.

I can’t repeat that enough. The Mayan’s calendar ending around this time was never a prediction that the “world would end” or anything like that. It’s like the end of the year–your calendar runs out, and you start over. Maya scholars–like Lisa Lucero–have been trying to scream this at us for years.

You were wrong.

Settler colonialists were wrong. This is a classic example of a colonial mistranslation of Indigenous knowledge and culture. God knows we’ve seen this enough.

Outsiders came in, saw what they wanted to see, used their frame of reference to make a claim, and when that claim didn’t “come true,” they make a false claim about the wrongness of Mayan thinking.

The Maya were pretty amazing. Their art is breathtaking, their building skills were impressive, and their mathematical and astronomical knowledge were astounding. To call them “wrong,” when the wrongness really lies with a colonialist misinterpretation of their knowledge, is bullshit. And it only serves to further obscure, erase, and devalue Indigenous knowledges.

E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library

The library where I work has recently been working on a large project converting from the Dewey Decimal system of classification to the Library of Congress. It’s been taking us a while, but we’ve finally moved on to the last phase: our large collection of media, including DVDs, video games, audiobooks, etc.

It’s understandable that with such a large undertaking, mistakes will be made. I would hardly expect every single item to be correctly catalogued during the conversion process. And I’ve been proven right, from minor technical errors (the misplacement of a decimal point) to major categorization flubs (‘Why is The Flintstones filed under “Celtic languages”?’), I’ve come across a number of labels that have had to be changed. It’s not a difficult process–if something doesn’t seem right, I just hand it off to our local staff person who works in cataloguing (we have a separate cataloguing branch as well; they assigned the call numbers in the first place), she looks it up and decides whether it needs to be changed. The other day, I was shelving a batch of DVDs, and came across a call number mistake that wasn’t just odd–it made me angry.

Disney’s Pocahontas was assigned a main entry of E99.P85. For those who don’t have LoC call numbers memorized (which I’m assuming is most people), E is the broad heading for American History. Numbers in the range around E90 are specifically American Indian History, and E99 is for History of Tribal Groups. The P85 specifies further the tribe the book is about.

Pocahontas was being classified as a historically accurate documentary.

I’d like to think this was some sort of mistake. But according to OCLC Classify, there are 1242 holdings of this film classified under this call number in libraries that submit data to OCLC. Pocahontas was deliberately assigned a call number such that it could pose as Native history.

I doubt I need to convince you that this film does not accurately represent the history of the woman who was Matoaka, but just in case, here’s a statement from the Powhatan Renape Nation, as well as information from multiple other sources. What I’m concerned about is the carelessness that librarians have taken in curating information about people.

I would argue that librarians have a social responsibility to the public they are trying to serve. Part of that responsibility is to make sure that information about people is not only available and readily accessible (via good classification schemes) but also that such information is curated in intellectually honest (and, I would suggest, socially just) ways.

Native peoples have had not only their lands and their lives, but also their histories taken away from them and misrepresented for hundreds of years. The colonialist imaginary has justified what is essentially genocide by taking indigenous stories and twisting them to fit a destructive mold that permits the violence of colonialism. Pocahontas is one of those stories. Kids who grow up knowing Pocahontas as their story about American Indians grow up knowing lies about who American Indians are and the history surrounding the colonization of America, and very specifically, grow up learning lies about the Powhatan tribe, John Smith, and the founding of Jamestown. I was trained in the academic study of children’s literature by Debbie Reese, who documents extensively the dangers of the misrepresentation of American Indian lives and cultures in her wonderful, wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. (I specifically use the plural, because there is no one “Indian culture.” That is another colonial myth.) I will leave the more in-depth discussion about representation specifically to her and others like her, more qualified than I to discuss such matters.

What I am concerned about here is the fact that fiction posing as truth is allowed by the field of library science to continue to do so. Even if you are quick to dismiss my rant on Pocahontas as left-leaning polemics (an accusation I’d be proud to bear), you must admit that it is intellectually dishonest to call an animated film with talking trees “history.” Debbie has written elsewhere about The Education of Little Tree, which was passed off an an autobiography before being exposed as a fraud. Many libraries still have the book classified as a biography.

It is critical that if we wish, as information professionals, to right some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated in American history against marginalized groups, that we not allow such things to happen. Indeed, classification in this way only perpetuates this kind of misrepresentation and oppression.

I refused to put Pocahontas on the shelf as history, and I requested that we find another classification for it. It now resides alongside other feature-length, fictional films. But it is critical that we continue to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. The ways libraries present information matters. I cannot help but think of a tribally enrolled member of the Powhatan nation coming into our library and seeing that film on the shelf, posing as their tribal history. How are cataloguers acting as the arbiters of saying what counts as authentic information? I think of the ways that books on Native religion are often classified as “folklore” instead of as genuine religion, or the ways in which films with a queer protagonist are automatically classified under “sexuality,” while heterosexual softcore porn with names like Pleasure Party masquerade as being about “relationships.”

When we recenter our analytics outside of the dominant (white, cis-masculinist, able-bodied, and heterosexual) viewpoint, what does our method of knowledge classification look like? This is a question I wish to continually ask myself as a librarian, and I want to make central to library science. Let’s not be dishonest about people’s lives.