The Chinks' nickname: It's not PC, it's decency

December 05, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

In July 1974, I went to the small town of Pekin, Ill., with a group of Chinese-Americans from Chicago who were offended by the name of Pekin's high school football team.

Pekin, named for the Chinese city of Peking, called its team the "Chinks."

The students at Pekin High told the visitors that they loved their Chinks and that to them it was a name of honor and respect and no harm was intended.

The Chinese-Americans argued that regardless of how it was intended, the name was degrading and racist and should be changed.

Afterward, the students took a vote and Chinks won, 1,034 to 182. Later, another vote was taken and Chinks won again.

Finally, in 1980, as times changed and sensitivities grew, the school board changed the name of the team to the "Dragons."

But some alumni were outraged and formed a group to change the name back. Pat Hagen, a Pekin High graduate, invoked the name of the town's most famous native son, Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen. "He was born a Chink," Hagen said, "he died a Chink; he's known around the world as a Chink."

The school board stuck to its decision, but for years afterward at high school reunions graduates passed out mementos that said "Chinks Forever."

I was reminded of all this as I recently read a story about protests at Stanford University because a conservative school newspaper has revived the old school mascot, an Indian, in the paper.

Stanford changed the name of its team from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972.

But there are still more than 90 colleges and junior colleges in this country that have Indian names or nicknames, along with some 1,500 high schools, and at least five professional sports teams.

The University of Iowa Hawkeyes, the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the University of Minnesota Gophers will not play nonconference games against teams using Indians as mascots or symbols.

The Washington Redskins are being sued by American Indians who argue that the term "Redskin" is "degrading, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist."

At least three major newspapers -- the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Portland Oregonian and the Salt Lake Tribune -- will not print the name "Redskins" in their pages.

And in October, a chancellor's committee at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana dropped a small bomb by recommending that the university retire Chief Illiniwek as the school's official symbol.

The chief, a student dressed in Indian costume, does a dramatic dance at the halftime of home football games. The chief was created in 1926 by the legendary coach Bob Zuppke to represent "the complete Indian man, the physical man, the intellectual man, and the spiritual man."

Today, caricatures of the chief appear on everything from T-shirts to beer mugs to, I am told, toilet paper.

hTC The alumni association at the university (of which I am a member) opposes retiring the chief, saying that two years ago a poll showed that 77 percent of the alumni favor his retention.

What strikes me about the controversy over the chief and similar symbols is that the argument has not changed in the 20 years since I went to Pekin.

One side says the symbol is a sign of reverence and respect. The other side says no matter what is intended, the symbol is humiliating and degrading.

Since Illinois won very few football games in the four years I was there, I went to the games largely for the chief, whose dance I found both entertaining and moving.

L But after much thought today I must side with the aggrieved.

The chief and other such symbols should be retired. And that's not because of PC -- political correctness. It's because of CD -- common decency.

The time for these symbols has gone. It is time to move forward. And you cannot move forward by looking backward.

We took the land from the American Indians and we gave them disease, alcohol and reservations in return.

At least we can leave them with their dignity.

It seems a small price to pay for an entire continent.

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