PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Football may be back at Coachella Valley High School, but the mascot is gone.
The Coachella Valley Unified School District confirmed Friday that it has retired the school's controversial Arab mascot that prompted objections from an anti-discrimination group last year. When the Coachella Valley football team takes the field against Rancho Mirage High for its season opener on Friday night, the mascot will be absent.
The Arab mascot costume was a cartoonish, headscarf-wearing man with a hooked nose, a thick beard and a devilish mustache. He often appeared with a belly-dancing genie during halftime. The genie has been retired as well, according to the district.
The removal of these mascots is the first major change since the school came under fire last year. But the school district has promised that more changes are coming.
Although the Arab mascot is gone from the sidelines, his face is still everywhere at Coachella Valley High. The school's logo — the mascot's snarling face, with a single tooth — is still featured on the school's welcome sign, the school website and a giant mural on the campus gym. Other school buildings are covered in murals that have been called stereotypical, including a lamp and a book that looks like a flying carpet.
These images drew the attention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights group in Washington, D.C. Last November, the group sent a letter accusing the district of "orientalist stereotyping," thrusting the school into a national media spotlight.
On Thursday, Abed Ayoub, a representative of the anti-discrimination committee, said the retirement of the mascot was a good first step. Of the Arab imagery at the school, the mascot was the most offensive, so it makes sense that he was the first to go, Ayoub said.
The anti-discrimination group has also approved one of the new designs for a school logo — a major milestone for choosing the new face of Coachella Valley High.
The district submitted five options to the group last spring, Ayoub said. The group favored a new design: A stoic, strong-jawed man with a neatly trimmed beard, a white headscarf and his face half-covered in shadow.
Although this new design has the blessing of the anti-discrimination group, it still needs approval from the school board. It is unclear when the board will address the logo issue.
Coachella Valley High has used an Arab mascot since the 1920s, when the school unveiled a drawing of a lance-wielding horseman with a striped headscarf. In the '50s, the school traded the horseman for two new drawings: a standing figure with a scimitar and the angry face of an older man wearing a fez. In the '80s, the angry face swapped the fez for a headscarf, becoming the school logo that exists today. This logo was used for decades before anyone objected.
Then, suddenly, objections came from everywhere.
First, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent its letter objecting to the mascot. The letter prompted a story by Al Jazeera America, the U.S. branch of the leading Arab news network, and quickly spread to USA TODAY and other national news organizations, sparking a slew of online criticism against the school.
However, as criticism mounted online, support grew at home. Students and alumni rallied behind the mascot, demanding that the district leave it unchanged. Many pointed to the mascot's deep roots: The school introduced its "Arab" identity more than 90 years ago to celebrate how the area's date industry created a spiritual link with the Middle East.
Kelman also reports for The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun