My school is changing its mascot because of an offensive stereotype. We weren’t the Cleveland Indians, whose cartoonish “Chief Wahoo” will be changed for the 2019 season. We weren’t the “Arabs” of Coachella Valley High School in California, whose grimacing, hook-nosed image was changed in 2014, nor were we the “Midgets” of Freeburg Community High in Illinois, which, even after a 2015 petition by the 6,500-member group representing the Little People of America, was kept in both image and name.
At Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), we have called ourselves “The Colonials.” Our mascot has been Colonial Phil, a big-eared colonial American in a tricornered hat.
What has been offensive about him? Is it the pun of his motto, “You Phil me?!” (Said like, “You feel me?!”)
No, that isn’t the problem.
The student-led petition in 2016, signed by more than 600 students and presented to the dean of students by the Student Government Association, said that Colonial Phil referenced our country’s history of prejudice and oppression — not as a victim, but as a perpetrator. “The term ‘Colonial’ glorified the colonization of the Americas,” wrote the assistant dean of students in a memo justifying the change, “and Colonial America and the Colonials of Philadelphia were almost exclusively Anglo or northern European.”
CCP plans to unveil its new mascot and nickname at the start of the fall 2018 semester.
The history that Colonial Phil represents does not best represent CCP, an open-access institution that largely serves Philadelphians who have been historically disadvantaged: 75 percent are students of color; 73 percent receive financial aid. Our students, historically speaking, are in higher education not because of any connection to our white, wealthy “founding fathers,” but in spite of them.
Ours has been another type of “offensive mascot” that needs changing: white mascots that represent disgraceful white American history.
Colonial Phil joins Amherst College’s “Lord Jeff,” who was displaced last year because he supported the genocide of Native Americans by distributing blankets infected with smallpox. With them is “Colonel Reb” of the University of Mississippi, who, in foreshadowing the removal of Confederate statues last year, was ousted in 2010 for his allegiance to (if not symbolic leadership of) the Confederate States.
Do all white mascots need to change, or any ethnicity or historical figure for that matter, seeing as no history is free from moral stain?
The images of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” and the Minnesota “Vikings” (of Scandinavia) don’t seem to stir controversy, and there are many snarling “Highlanders” (of Scotland) out there. There are also many mean- and nasty-looking Trojans and Spartans, whose historical referents likely had Mediterranean and Arab complexions (Sparta being in Greece, Troy in modern-day Turkey) but who typically appear on American playing fields as white as the cream-cheese-and-mayo clam dip made for football Sundays.
No one seems to have a problem with these mascots because historical reckonings reflect current realities.
The Irish, for example, certainly faced a history of persecution in this country, but as books like How the Irish Became White explain, the oppressed Irish and other European immigrants in the U.S. gained power in part by becoming oppressors to people of color. Why, by contrast, is there such attention today to Native American mascots? Consider that, according to the U.S. census, 28.3 percent of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives lived below the poverty line in 2014, the highest of any racial group, double the rate for Americans overall, which was 15 percent. From today’s perspective, the “Fighting Irish,” though once persecuted, are more on the side of “Lord Jeff” than that of the “Redskins.”
What is extraordinary about Colonial Phil’s forced retirement is that, in contrast to someone like Colonel Reb, who anachronistically represents a defeated Confederacy, we as Americans, and certainly as Philadelphians, still honor, in very official ways, the colonial history of the U.S.A.
When you walk by the Liberty Bell, down the street from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, people are dressed in historical costume, looking very much like Colonial Phil.
CCP’s historical reckoning not only reflects this current reality; it confronts it, recognizing that, to best serve our citizenry as an institution of higher education, there is a side of our nation’s history we cannot ignore, much less cheer. At CCP, we don’t Phil him anymore.
Brian Goedde teaches writing and literature at Community College of Philadelphia.