California High School Pressed to Drop Its ‘Arab’ Mascot

Patrick Goodenough | November 7, 2013 | 4:21am EST
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Coachella Valley High School’s Arab mascot logo has changed over the decades, from the original one on horseback, to one wielding a scimitar and wearing a fez, to the one used today, bottom right. (Images: CVHS Alumni Association)

( – Hot on the heels of the Washington Redskins name controversy, an Arab-American advocacy group wants a California high school to abandon its decades-old sports mascot and associated imagery on the grounds it offensively stereotypes Arabs.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) is unhappy with the Coachella Valley High School’s “Arab” mascot – the name, the logo, half-time shows that feature an “Arab” figure and a belly dancer, as well as Arabian Nights-styled wall murals including one depicting an Arab man and woman using a book as a flying carpet.

“ADC is appalled at the use of a caricature depicted to be an ‘Arab’ as the official mascot of the high school,” ADC legal and policy director Abed Ayoub wrote in a Nov. 4 letter to Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent Darryl Adams.

He observed that the mascot logo “depicts a man with a large nose, heavy beard, and wearing a kaffiay [keffiyeh], or traditional Arab head covering.”

“ADC understands the context in which the nickname was initially selected,” Ayoub wrote – apparently a reference to the valley’s history as a prime date-growing region, dating back to the early years of the 20th century.

“However, in the 21st century, such justifications for these actions are no longer tolerable.”

Ayoub wrote that the logo, murals and sporting event half-time show were all “examples of gross stereotyping, which must not be tolerated, and must immediately be addressed.”

“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.”

The ADC therefore “encourages” the district and school “to give this important matter proper attention.”

“It is our hope that a swift and amicable solution can be reached to resolve this issue,” he concluded. “I look forward to your anticipated cooperation.”

The wording of a cover letter to a petition which ADC is encouraging supporters to sign is somewhat more direct.

“We demand that the ‘Arab’ as the official mascot of the Coachella Valley High School be eliminated, along with the imagery and terminology associated with it,” it says. As of early Thursday the petition carried more than 430 signatures.

The ADC’s campaign has begun to draw wider media attention, featuring in an al-Jazeera America story on Wednesday and was starting to be picked up by outlets in the Middle East, led by the official Palestinian Authority news agency, Wafa.

According to the Coachella Valley High School Alumni Association, the mascot has a long history.

The Arab mascot dates back to when Coachella Valley High School first began to compete in athletics in the 1920s,” it says. “The school adopted the name Arabs in part to recognize the importance of the date industry in this end of the valley, but also because it fit in perfectly with the neighboring towns of Mecca, Oasis, Arabia, and Thermal.”

The mascot design has changed down the years. Originally the Arab was on a horse, wielding a lance and wearing a turban. In the 1950s the horse disappeared, the lance became a scimitar and the turban was replaced by a fez.

According to the association, the current design – the one the ADC described in its letter as having a “large nose” and “heavy beard” – was adopted in the 1980s, in part as a result of input from visiting Saudis.

“A group of Arabs from Saudi Arabia who were in the area touring the desert’s date industry recommended that the mascot’s headdress be changed from a fez to a hijab or head scarf,” it said. “Their reasoning was that Saudi Arabia was no longer under French rule [sic];  therefore, Saudi Arabians no longer wore the fez as their headdress. The school voted to honor the request and the mascot began to be drawn as he still appears today.”

(Arabia was formerly under Ottoman, not French rule.)

It’s not clear what prompted the ADC to confront the school over the issue now. The ADC has been operating for more than 30 years, and the mascot has been in place for almost three times that long.

Queries sent to Ayoub and the ADC brought no response by press time.

The school district could not be reached for comment, but Adams told the Palm Spring, Calif. paper, The Desert Sun, that he plans to discuss the matter at the school board’s next meeting, on November  21.

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