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Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

When I was in college I was a WASP. No, really. My school, Emory and Henry College in southwest Virginia, has as its mascot the Wasp, a very angry insect with an oversized stinger.

The president of the Methodist liberal arts university has formed a committee to revisit the school mascot, a move that has aroused the attention of conservative writers on outlets like Breitbart.

Why? Because in the 1950s the term “WASP” began to be used as an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Though fading in influence (only about a fourth of Americans fit the description today), WASPs continue to have disproportionate influence over major American institutions, especially cultural, educational, business and financial ones. Some alumni, students and faculty want the mascot to change.

Not surprisingly, swatting the Wasp has generated a firestorm (at least as fiery a storm as well-behaved, well-educated Methodists can muster) on the college’s social media sites.

One interesting exchange came between two former football players — one, Jimmie, is Black, and the other, John, is white:

Jimmie: The first thing I learned at Emory [and Henry] was White Anglo Saxon Protestant was the meaning of our logo. My response was: I am none of the above ... Was it comfortable as a minority at EHC? No, it was not. If we are going to have an institution comfortable for all students, Wasp has to go.

John: As a white student and graduate I never heard such a thing ... when I had a football helmet on, I never felt that with my teammates of color ... not once ... I cannot speak to your experience, mine was different.

Jimmie: Your lens [sic] are just different from mine.

John: [Can] we see it differently through our own lenses and still be not wrong?

That’s a good question, which brings another question to mind: What’s the point of a mascot anyway?

Certainly for college and professional sports, the mascot can be enormously profitable when marketed to loyal fans — particularly children. Even after offensive Chief Wahoo — the grinning red-skinned mascot of the Cleveland Indians — was taken off the official uniforms, vendors were still selling his likeness on giant foam fingers and other products.

But some mascots are more effective than others. According to a seminar I attended on branding at WVU’s Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, the Mountaineer is actually not an effective mascot to use when recruiting outside the state — particularly in the Northeast. The instructor said research showed that many high school students and their parents are a little intimidated by a bearded man in buckskins wielding a firearm.

Inside the state, however, where half the homes have a gun safe and a deer head on the wall, the Mountaineer is extremely effective.

Which brings us back to John’s question: Can we see it differently through our own lenses, and still not be wrong?

Lately, the mascots of some state high schools have attracted debate. These mascots basically fall into these categories:

n Animals (Tigers, Mustangs, Falcons, Eagles, Hornets)

n European history and mythology (Knights, Dragons, Pirates, Titans, Spartans, Cavaliers, Vikings, Trojans)

n American/Appalachian history (Minutemen, Patriots, Generals, Rebels, Pioneers, Highlanders, Hillbillies, Mountaineers)

n Local industry/culture (Lumberjacks, Applemen)

n Indigenous peoples (Indians, Redskins, Mohigans)

n Forces of nature and miscellaneous (Golden Tornado, Tide, Dots, Cee-Bees)

Some of these mascots carry some baggage — negative connotations that may not have been foreseen when they were first adopted.

For instance, several of the mascots are gender specific to males. How can a girl on a soccer team or basketball team embody a Minuteman? An Appleman?

Others have negative connotations simply by virtue of their implied behavior: Cavaliers, Devils, Hillbillies, Renegades, Pirates, Mavericks.

The issue of mascots derived from indigenous tribes in West Virginia is a little muddy. For instance, the folks at Morgantown High School call themselves the “Mohigans.” One source told me this name didn’t come from a tribe, but was derived from the school yearbook’s title: MOrgantown HIGh ANual.

Yet, there was a real tribe with a very similar name, and a Native-American headdress like that of the Cleveland Indians was once used on the school’s logo.

Certainly the two menacing, cartoonish Confederates used to represent the Ritchie County Rebels and Stonewall Jackson Generals seem a sad attempt to hold on to a lost cause — a cause quite painful to Black Americans.

Even the artist who painted the original mural of Stonewall Jackson at the former West Side high school is calling for its eradication. The Kanawha County Board of Education voted recently to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle; the Ritchie County BOE is likewise discussing the future of the Rebels as their team mascot.

It seems only the human mascots are problematic. Humans are fallible. History is constantly being revised and rewritten. Every mascot, every statue, every institution named for an individual carries with it both the strengths and weaknesses of that individual. Are we “canceling culture” when we topple these icons, or are we improving it?

I predict Emory and Henry will drop the Wasp mascot, and I hope they do. The boo-hooing from traditionalists at the predominantly white college sounds a little hollow these days, especially when the lens I’m looking through is focusing on headlines about Black people going for a run and being shot in the back by police, or getting suffocated on a sidewalk after being arrested for a petty offense.

Compared to this, the inconvenience of having to peel off my E&H Wasp bumper sticker seems to have lost its sting.

Susan Johnson is a retired journalism teacher from Richwood High School. Her column “My Side of the Mountain” appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.