There Are Racist Emblems, but Chief Wahoo Isn’t One of Them

Everything about the Indians is awesome except their very racist logo ,” proclaimed a USA Today headline last Monday. Cleveland’s baseball team was at that point 18 victories into an amazing winning streak that would stretch to 22 — an American League record and the longest winning streak in major league baseball in more than a century. But baseball writer Ted Berg devoted only a few sentences to the Indians’ brilliant performance before moving to his main subject: “the extremely racist logo they insist on wearing on their caps.”
 
On any list of knee-jerk PC verities, the “obvious” racism of Chief Wahoo — the cartoon character that has been the Indians logo for seven decades — would be near the top. I get why people make that claim, but I’m going to argue that they’re wrong. Chief Wahoo is not in any way an emblem of bigotry or racial contempt. And those who censoriously insist it is are unwittingly downplaying the ugliness of genuinely racist images.

Origins of the Image

Chief Wahoo was created in 1946 at the request of Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball impresario who was then the Indians’ owner. Veeck hired a designer to come up with an emblem that “would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.” (A few months later, Veeck would make a far more famous hire: He acquired Larry Doby, a star centerfielder from the Negro Leagues, bringing him to the Indians as the first black player in the American League.)
 
During the decades when the Indians were one of the worst-performing teams in baseball — decades that included my Cleveland childhood in the 1960s and 1970s — Chief Wahoo was pretty much the only thing about the Tribe that conveyed “pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.” On the few occasions when I went to games at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the vast downtown arena where the Indians used to play, I loved seeing the 28-foot-tall likeness of Chief Wahoo at bat, illuminated at night and towering over Gate D

For decades, Chief Wahoo has been reviled as (to cite just a few headlines) “ ridiculous and offensive,” “ the most offensive image in sports,” “the grinning face of racism,” and “a national embarrassment .” On the culture-war battlefield nowadays, few activities are more popular than taking offense and playing the race card, so it isn’t surprising that bashing Chief Wahoo is almost as trendy as trashing the name of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

But Chief Wahoo doesn’t even reflect a stereotype.
On the “Redskins” controversy, I'm happy to stand with the 90% of Native Americans who, in a 2016 Washington Post poll, said that the team’s name doesn’t bother them. They doubtless recognized what anyone not pumped up on racial indignation recognizes: No sports team adopts a name or symbol in order to bring contempt upon itself. Apart from handles that are merely whimsical (Red Sox, Jazz, Mighty Ducks) or geographical (76ers, Maple Leafs, Rockies), team names typically suggest traits associated with heroes and winners: the speed of jets, the ferocity of bears, the aggressiveness of predators, the tenacity of cowboys.
 
That explains the abundance of Indian-themed team names in American sports at every level. Braves, Warriors, Blackhawks, Redskins, Indians — they are nods to a common view of native tribes as brave, tough, noble, and intimidating. If that’s a stereotype, it is a flattering one. It may not be historically accurate, but it could hardly be less of an example of invidious racism.

Looking for a Reason to Be Angry
 
But Chief Wahoo doesn’t even reflect a stereotype. It doesn’t symbolize any view of American Indians. Nothing about the Cleveland team’s logo pigeonholes or defines Native Americans: It evokes no shibboleth or hackneyed prejudice, it plays into no popular notion or misimpression about Indians, good, bad, or neutral.
 
And that’s just the point that the Chief-Wahoo-is-racist crowd consistently and passionately get wrong.
 
Screeds against the Indians’ logo are frequently accompanied by this 2001 advertisement from the National Congress of American Indians:

The ad’s message is harshly unforgiving: Of course the logo of Chief Wahoo, with its toothy grin and feather, is racist, it says: as racist as a caricature of a buck-toothed, squinting Chinese man, or of a hook-nosed, bearded Jew.

Chief Wahoo is not and never has been the “grinning face of racism.”
But those comparisons are fallacious. Images of near-sighted, smirking Chinese and of devious Jews with huge noses are all-too-familiar slurs — nasty tropes of anti-Asian and anti-Semitic mockery, just as the image of a grinning, watermelon-chomping Sambo is a trope of anti-black mockery. But there is no negative stereotype of wide-eyed, laughing Indians. Chief Wahoo doesn’t reflect contempt for Indians any more than Bugs Bunny reflects contempt for rabbits or than the Boston Celtics logo reflects contempt for the Irish.
 
Chief Wahoo is not and never has been the “grinning face of racism.” Like Fred Flintstone, Dudley Do-Right, or the bat-swinging, tonsured monk of the San Diego Padres, he is a cheerful, playful cartoon character, nothing more. The Chief Wahoo logo doesn’t hint at any bigoted subtext. Demonizing it as a racist emblem may feel good to those who enjoy parading their liberal sensitivity, but it does nothing to combat actual bigotry or promote tolerance.
 
Baseball is only a game. In the greater scheme of things, it makes little difference whether the Indians (who clinched the AL Central Division championship on Sunday) win or lose. But it makes a lot of difference to our culture and public discourse whether false accusations of racism are promoted or resisted. Chief Wahoo is innocent and harmless. Critics should save their ire for something that matters.