THERMAL, Calif. – Go to a high school football game in the Southern California desert and you may be surprised to see belly dancers performing at halftime.
Fans who come out to root for the prep team known as the Coachella Valley Arabs will find a snarling, black-bearded mascot wearing a headscarf egging them on.
The mascot in this town east of Palm Springs that has existed for nearly a century has now drawn the ire of an anti-discrimination group that deems the caricature offensive and stereotypical.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee recently sent a letter to officials at the Coachella Valley Unified School District asking them to get rid of the mascot, the San Bernardino Desert Sun reported.
“By allowing continued use of the term and imagery, you are commending and enforcing the negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group, millions of whom are citizens of this nation,” Abed Ayoub, the group’s director of legal and policy affairs, wrote.
The request comes amid mounting pressure for the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change its mascot because it’s offensive to many American Indians.
The Arab mascot has been around since the 1920s and was chosen to recognize the area’s reliance on date farming, traditionally a Middle Eastern crop. The nearby community of Mecca also pays homage to the Middle East.
The mascot has evolved from a turban-wearing horseman carrying a lance to a standing figure with a scowl and a headscarf.
Superintendent Darryl Adams said the topic will be discussed at a Nov. 21 school board meeting. He said he was taken aback by the “Arab” name when he first was hired two years ago.
“Being an African-American from the Deep South, I’m sensitive to stereotyping,” Adams told the newspaper. “But in this context, when this was created it was not meant in that way. It was totally an admiration of the connection with the Middle East.”
Adams said the letter from the anti-discrimination group was the first time the school had been criticized for stereotyping in the past two years.
Some school alumni have defended the mascot, saying it’s a matter of pride.
“There was no intention to demean Arabs or be discriminatory in any way,” said David Hinkle, a 1961 graduate. “I don’t think it’s right to decide now that you can’t do that anymore. It is political correctness run amok, I would say.”