I’m sure many of you are aware of the issue (particularly in America) of ‘Indian’ mascots in sports. I think it's becoming increasingly likely that this issue is something English rugby will need to address sooner or later – especially if rugby continues to expand into the USA.
In relation to our sport, it is quite simple: Exeter is the only professional rugby union team in the world that uses an extant ethnic minority, to which they have absolutely no cultural or hereditary connection, as a merchandising brand. If any other ethnic minority were used in any way similar to how the Exeter brand stereotypes ‘Indian’ culture, it would simply not be tolerated.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Exeter Rugby or their fans are setting out to disparage anyone. I’m not calling anyone out. I simply think we (the rugby community) need to have an open and informed discussion, to establish the facts of the matter and dispel the myths, before the issue is forced upon us.
The National Congress of American Indians launched it’s campaign against ‘Indian’ mascots in 1968. And, in case previous decades of pressure, education and advocacy weren’t clear enough, they passed a resolution in 1993 to “condemn the racist and condescending attitude of team owners, colleges and high schools, which continue to demean the members of our Nations” and called upon “all reasonable individuals in decision-making positions to voluntarily change racist and dehumanizing mascots.” This campaign, to “oppose the use of racist and demeaning ‘Indian’ sports mascots”, is still very much a current concern.
I’m certain there was no ill intent when Exeter adopted their current ‘Indian’ brand in 1999, but it seems clear that, at best, they didn’t think to consult the people whose culture they were appropriating. Indeed, it seems likely they simply didn’t even consider, at the time, that there were actual people behind the stereotype. This is the dehumanizing effect of racial stereotypes: people become objects.
The fact that Exeter didn’t consider the autonomy of the culture they were appropriating at the time does not mean we should ignore the issue now.
Arguments in defence of ‘Indian’ mascots have become increasingly untenable. In America two-thirds of ‘Indian’ sports brands have been retired during the past 35 years. The sooner Exeter voluntarily embraces that trend the better; I believe a proactive change would only be a good thing for Exeter rugby club, as well as a positive statement on rugby values in general.
I believe this is a subject that the rugby community needs to discuss in the open. It is as much of a rugby related topic as anything else that happens on our terraces. If the issue was homophobia, we would be discussing it; if it was sexism, we would be discussing it; if it were any other form of racial stereotyping, we would be discussing it.
The three main questions for me are:
1. Are Exeter Rugby Club using and perpetuating a stereotype of an ethnic minority?
2. If yes, is that stereotype harmful and are that ethnic minority aggrieved by the use of that stereotype?
3. If yes, is this something we should accept in our sport?
The answer to the first two questions appears to be a very clear ‘yes’ – but I’m open to persuasion otherwise. I’d like to hear what other people think about question three.