Op-ed: Coming to grips with racism at school

By Madeline Bodin

If you have ever seen me, then you almost certainly have seen me in a sweatshirt with the Chieftain head on it. During the 10 years that my two children attended Green Mountain Union High School and Middle School, I owned three GM hoodies, two green and one gray.

I wore them to my kids’ games. They played five sports between them, so I wore them a lot. Each of my kids played in a state championship game their senior year. I proudly supported my children, their teammates and what they achieved together.

When I moved to the area 30 years ago and learned about the local high school’s mascot, I thought it was racist in a slap-in-your-face kind of way. I hoped it would be changed before my children reached Green Mountain, but it never was.

I’d like to think I never made a secret out of my feelings. My kids say they can’t remember a time when they didn’t know that I thought that the Chieftain mascot is racist.

But I promised myself I would not say anything while my children were in the school system. I didn’t want them to be punished for my belief. I had already had the experience of my daughter being singled out by an elementary school principal after I complained about an unsafe policy. That principal also once told me that she “didn’t understand” how a positive racial stereotype, expressed by a teacher, was harmful. 

I was so naïve then. I thought she was actually uninformed, so I explained it to her.

What changed my mind about speaking out about the high school’s mascot? A state law. A complaint filed by Native Americans.

In my work as a journalist, I’ve spoken to Native Americans  in northern New England for several articles. I learned that the Native people of southern Vermont are not remnants of the past and cannot be spoken of in the past tense. Their culture is vibrant and informs every moment of their lives today. They are our friends, our neighbors and our coworkers. They are not symbols to be used as other people want.

I was also moved by one courageous grandmother speaking out about the racial harassment that her granddaughter faced at the school. It was impossible for me to ignore that the school’s mascot sends the message that the school allows and even celebrates some forms of bigotry.

After my youngest graduated from high school, those three hoodies languished in the back of a closet. When I finally got rid of them, I felt lighter. I had removed a little hypocrisy from my life.

The minute Ludlow voted for school choice, Green Mountain could have embraced something like “Commanders in Chief” to welcome former Presidents, and encourage a brighter future for the school district. Instead,  some members of the community clutched the past even tighter, ignoring all consequences. It didn’t find a compromise because it didn’t look for one.

The school board can claim that the stylized head of a Native American of the Great Plains is no longer the high school’s mascot. While the majority of the board seems to want to let the Chieftain name go, the minority prevails. Instead of turning its back on racism, it’s clinging to any part of the mascot that it might get away with keeping.

If you want to see how this strategy works, look to the University of Illinois. The university retired its mascot Chief Illiniwek in 2007, when the NCAA, the organization that oversees most college sports, said the mascot was “hostile and abusive.” But the university kept the “Fighting Illini” name and didn’t replace the chief with another mascot, leaving a huge vacuum. Sixteen years later, you’ll still find Chief Illiniwek gear on fans at the university’s football games.

I’ve smartened up since I spoke to that elementary school principal. I now know that “I don’t understand” means “I don’t agree,” and if you are trying to hold on to the last traces of a racist symbol, you are saying, whether you are aware of it or not, that you have priorities that rank higher than eliminating racism.

Even if you want to get rid of racism, an old mascot can be hard to shake off. Yesterday, I reached for something wedged between two boxes and found a seat cushion with a tea-saucer-sized profile of a Native American with a Plains-style headdress printed on the front.

I won’t be spending $10,000 on lawyers defending that seat cushion. I hate to throw anything away, but sometimes that’s just what you have to do.

Madeline Bodin is a resident of Andover.

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  1. J Verespy says:

    Thank you Maddy, for this beautifully written op-ed!