A couple of weeks ago, it might have been cute if I had shown you the above array of logos and asked, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if a high school in America actually used any of these?” Well, as we all now know, it’s not some hypothetical question.
Recently, we learned that there is a high school in southeastern California known as the Coachella Valley High School Arabs. Yes, they use the term “Arab.” And when I say they “use the term,” I really mean it. Their “Arab” has a turban, hook nose, beard, and just looks plain mean. He is straight out of “True Lies,” or “Back To The Future,” or “24,” or “The Siege,” or “The Mummy,” or “The Kingdom,” or “Rules of Engagement.” He doesn’t look like that Arab hero in that movie… oh well, I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere.
We also learned that during the halftime show of their basketball games, Coachella’s cheerleaders gather around the “Arab” as a female student dressed as a belly dancer shakes her hips around him. If this actually happened to us real Arabs, I would have gotten married already.
The Arab-American community has taken this all in. And different segments of our community have held different views on the matter. They have debated the issue. And we Arabs are professional debaters. In fact, it might not be uncommon to hear an Arab say, “I’m not sure what we are talking about, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with you.”
Well, everyone, the debate is over. There is no world in which what Coachella is doing is allowable. When I first wrote satirically about this whole thing, I thought I was just delivering clever commentary. I had no idea I was participating in a debate, especially with my own people.
Some of my fellow Arab Americans have said, “They have had this logo for such a long time. Let it be.” Well, there is no statute of limitations on stereotyping, racism, and injustice. Just because something goes on for a long time does not make it right. Slavery went on for over 400 years. Apartheid in South Africa lasted for almost 50 years. A wife might nag her husband for his entire adult life. The passage of time doesn’t make any of those things acceptable.
They have also told me, “Isn’t it good that someone is proud of being an Arab?” Well, I guess so, in theory. But when a non-Arab is proud of being an “Arab,” it can get a little weird. And when they display their pride by using only the most stereotypical images of our culture (belly dancers, turbans, and swords), it’s harmful. Arab Americans boast more college graduates per capita than any minority group in this country. Maybe Coachella’s mascot should wear a cap and gown.
Lastly, some of my Arab American friends have noted, “Don’t we have bigger problems than some small high school in the middle of California?” It might seem like that. But the Coachella issue must be seen as a symptom. The real disease is the systematic misrepresentation, dehumanization, and discrimination that occur against us daily. In that sense, what Coachella is doing is no different than an Arab getting “extra scrutiny” at the airport. In fact, that Coachella “Arab” probably couldn’t fly anywhere.
I say to those Arab Americans who think that there is nothing wrong with what Coachella is doing: Wake up. You may think that the mascot shows that they are proudly accepting us. But if that is what acceptance looks like, I’ll pass. And if that is the kind of acceptance you accept, you need to reassess. If you consent to others portraying us not as who we are, but rather as who they whimsically imagine us to be, reconsider your position. Your strategy to keep shaking hands with the politicians and avoid rocking the boat has failed. You might think that you score points with mainstream white America by brushing off Coachella as “no big deal.” But your struggle to become “white” is not only misguided, it is counterproductive. You may think that we are not in the middle of a liberation movement. You’re wrong. And it’s time to join in.
To the non-Arabs who think that we are making too much of the Coachella mascot, I beg you to ask yourselves: Why is racism somehow tolerable when the victims are Arabs and Muslims? Imagine if Coachella’s students were the “Mexicans,” with the above mascot wearing a sombrero and handlebar mustache. And imagine if during halftime he did the tango with a female student. Would you be shocked if the Mexican community had a problem with that? Or imagine if they were the “Blacks,” with the above mascot sporting a hoodie, goatee, earrings, and gold chains. And imagine if during halftime he rapped as bikini-wearing female students danced around him. Wouldn’t you expect Al Sharpton to quickly show up at the high school’s doorstep? Now I didn’t make an illustration for this next example because I was scared. But imagine if they were the “Jews.” They would not have to change the facial features of their “Arab” mascot much, of course. He would really just need to lose the turban and add a yarmulke. And imagine if during halftime he just sat on the court and did people’s taxes. Imagine.
Now, I have communicated with many “Arabs” from Coachella in the past couple weeks. I should say that they seem to be really honest, awesome people. Overwhelmingly, they want to keep their mascot in all its current forms. That is understandable. The high school there is a central part of the community, and its traditions are strong. I believe that the people of Coachella are wholly well intentioned. But intentions don’t matter here. Only effects do.
They see themselves as proud “Arabs.” But lucky for them, they only have to be “Arabs” in the classroom and during sporting events. I have to be an Arab all the time. It’s not nearly as fun as it looks during halftime.