Long before I was a Columbia professor, Melissa Harris-Perry panelist–and occasional guest host–I played a part in bringing down a dynasty at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois. In 1998, the university ended its long-held tradition of crowing a homecoming king and queen–due in part to the controversy that overshadowed the celebration of the coronation.
You see, the year before, during my senior year, I was the last and final person to be named homecoming king at the University of Illinois. Because I used my platform – together with the homecoming queen–to protest the school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek–which since 1926 had been represented at home football and basketball games by a student dancing around while wearing a buckskin costume and headdress.
I deeply believed Chief Illiniwek to be a racist and offensive caricature of Native American people, and saw the homecoming coronation as an opportunity to take a stand. It took another 10 years before the University finally relented, and did away with the Chief and his on-court antics for good.
But I am proud of the small part I played in the long history of resistance that led to that change. Which is why this week, my letter goes to someone I see as a sister in that struggle – the student editor of a southeast Pennsylvania high school paper who was punished for taking a similar stand for what is right.
Dear Gillian McGoldrick:
First, I want to commend you and the staff at the Playwickian newspaper for your vote last year to ban the word “Redskin”–the name of Neshaminy High School’s mascot–from being printed in its pages. Last year, your paper’s board wrote in an editorial explaining the decision that:
“…the evidence suggesting that ‘Redskin’ is a term of honor is severely outweighed by the evidence suggesting that it is a term of hate.”
It’s clear you have already learned one lesson from the history of American journalism: that as a journalist, your first obligation is to speak the truth about injustice, even when –especially when–doing so is unpopular or inconvenient. But your school administrators have also taught you another lesson from that history: that speaking truth to power can also come with consequences from those resistant to change.
And I know you learned that the hard way this week, when your school superintendent responded to your refusal to print the offensive word by suspending you for a month from your position as editor-in-chief of the Playwickian. Gillian, I hope you recognize that this setback represents a failure–not on your part, but on the part of the superintendent, the school board that challenged your decision, and your school principal who has insisted you reverse it.
Because a school newspaper should first and foremost be an educational endeavor for student journalists about the press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
But instead of teaching you how the press acts as a dissenting voice against unchecked state power, your educators have used the power granted to them by the state to shame you into silence. And what’s worse, they have done so in defense of a term you and your staff rightly recognize as racist.
Gillian, I want you to know that although these administrators singled you out for punishment, that you are not standing alone. Because journalists at nearly two dozen news outlets across the country have made the same decision about using the name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C. From the Washington Post’s editorial board to Mother Jones Magazine to the San Francisco Chronicle–they are all with you in your choice to respect human dignity over dehumanization.
And for whatever it’s worth Gillian, I want you to know I stand with you too. Keep fighting the good fight, because even if they continue to try and silence your voice, your refusal to back down speaks volumes.