Collegiate’s new Dutch mascot is a flashpoint in the race debate

The national judgment on race and privilege that has caused upheaval in schools across the country came at Collegiate, one of New York’s most prestigious private schools, when a group of students of color publicly demanded that the 400-year-old institution “address its own problems of racism and intolerance.

In response, Collegiate officials created a 17-member task force, which a year later produced a comprehensive 407-page report on the school’s “history and symbols,” filled with charts, findings survey and feedback from dozens of people connected to Collegiate.

Then in January, three years after students called for change, the final result of the study arrived in an email to parents and alumni: Collegiate’s mascot had a facelift.

In recent years, schools across the United States, from private schools like Collegiate to public high schools to Ivy League universities, have struggled to adapt to rapidly changing racial norms. and privileges by diversifying faculties, expanding curricula and adopting anti-racist guidelines.

Many of New York’s exclusive Collegiate private school counterparts, who are fiercely protective of their privacy, have faced their own controversies. At Brearley, Chapin and Spence, among others, disturbing testimonies from students of color have been compiled on dedicated social media pages. At Grace Church School and Dalton, anti-racist training led to minor uprisings and angry letters.

At Collegiate, it was the school’s mascot – a winking caricature of a crow’s-foot Dutch settler – who appeared as a flashpoint. The decision to change it has, predictably, caused some outcry, but on both sides.

Some people lamented that what they saw as an important part of Collegiate’s heritage was being erased. They viewed the Dutch mascot as a harmless embodiment of school pride and a loving connection to the tradition of the all-boys institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Others backed the initial call to change the mascot, seen by some as offensive, from its Eurocentric and racist connotations to its crude depiction of a disability, a peg leg. But they saw the result of the vast research project as a simple transformation that did not confront the broader issues of race and inclusion at Collegiate.

“It does next to nothing to address systemic racism and socio-cultural inequality at Collegiate,” said Luca Rojas, 32, who graduated from the school in 2008.

While redesigning the mascot is laudable, Mr. Rojas said, changing it only “scratched the surface of what really needs to be done to address systemic racism and socio-cultural inequities at Collegiate, which only makes the make it even more hollow and performative.

Others saw merit in the movement. A more recent graduate, Rifat Islam, 20, called the issue of mascots “a difficult balancing act for the school”.

Mr Islam, who graduated from Collegiate in 2019 and is now a junior at Yale, added: ‘It is more important to me that we have engaged in conversation.

The task force report, which is posted on the Collegiate website, also refers to plans to create a second task force devoted to the school’s policies on student admissions and retention, but offers no further details.

Officials at Collegiate, a K-12 school with about 650 students, did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article on changes to the curriculum, faculty or other aspects of the school.

Founded in 1628, Collegiate has a long list of prominent graduates that includes one of America’s Founding Fathers, New York’s first Governor John F. Kennedy Jr. and actor David Duchovny. With tuition and fees of around $60,000 per year, it is consistently ranked among the top private schools in the country. Most graduates go on to study at top-tier colleges.

A main objection to the mascot was that it was known to many as “Peg Leg Pete” and widely seen as representing Peter Stuyvesant, the 17th century Dutch wooden-legged leader of New Amsterdam whose legacy has has come under increasing criticism due to its property. of slaves, support for slavery and anti-Semitic policies.

The Stuyvesant name is still used by the prestigious public school Stuyvesant High School, where sports teams are known as the Peglegs, and by the sprawling residential complex of Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan’s East Side.

The Collegiate controversy began in February 2019, when the organization for students of color, Jamaa, said in a letter published in the school newspaper that “Collegiate must address its own issues of racism and intolerance.” .

The Jamaa letter, signed by 28 students, called for a more inclusive, less Eurocentric curriculum and for greater diversity among teachers and administrators beyond “cisgender heterosexual white men.”

In 1969, the letter noted, there had been two black students in the class. In 2019, there were also two black students in the class.

“Collegiate is a place where black children have their hair clogged and constantly touched without their permission as if they were animals in a petting zoo,” the letter reads.

Among the nine steps the students asked the school to take was #5: “a serious reassessment of our school’s mascot.” The letter called Stuyvesant a “vehement anti-Semite” who “ruled through hatred and racism.”

“Is this the man we want to represent Collegiate?” asked the letter. “Do his values ​​match ours?

The report calls the Dutch mascot “an ubiquitous reference in school life, synonymous with the school itself”.

The report said the task force – which included students, staff and college administrators – had “embraced an anti-racism mission and sought to engage students and teachers to challenge whiteness, racial privilege and prejudice. “.

A historian hired as part of the effort examined Collegiate’s place in history amid problematic items such as Stuyvesant’s personal legacy and the existence of slavery in early Dutch Manhattan.

The task force interviewed and polled more than 1,600 students, parents, faculty members and alumni about the school’s mascot and other symbols, which it noted “often become an indicator of feelings just below the surface, whether in school or in society, especially when it comes to race and power.

Some of those interviewed were asked to come up with a word or phrase relating to the Dutchman’s nickname and mascot. Responses ranged from positive (“iconic,” “historic,” “ubiquitous”) to negative (“racism,” “anti-Semitism,” “embarrassing”).

Finally, after three years of study and redesign work, a modernized image of Dutch was sent to thousands of parents and alumni last month.

Gone are the aspects that some people had called offensive, including the original character’s wooden leg and even his identity: the new character is shown in silhouette, with his face obscured.

As part of the same revision process, Collegiate dropped other traditions, including references to God in the secular school’s motto and on its official seal.

The report also recommended addressing other offensive parts of Collegiate’s history, including a fight song printed in a 1964 textbook that the task force said was worth “revisiting.” The song salutes Collegiate’s colonial ancestors, “those hardy old Dutchmen” who arrived in America and “announced to the wandering red men, ‘You must get out of the way.'”

Chinmay Deshpande, a 2020 graduate and task force member, said that despite the “undeniably reprehensible” connection to Stuyvesant, there had been considerable resistance to the mascot change. Among those who opposed the move, many former students emailed school officials asking why the issue was being considered.

“If that’s the answer,” said Mr. Deshpande, 19, “then I’m very pessimistic for systemic change at Collegiate.”

Alumni reaction to the mascot change has been mixed.

Some graduates told the task force that they supported the mascot change; others said it would be tantamount to giving in to political correctness. Some have suggested keeping the mascot but using it to educate students about Collegiate’s complicated history.

“I wonder why we spend so much time and effort and money on this?” said an elder in the task force report. “The future excellence of our students is not linked to a sporting symbol, but to how we interact with each other inside and outside the classroom.”

Another graduate, in an apparent investigation into Jamaa’s complaints in 2019, said, “Don’t let a child try to add a paragraph to their college essay destroy over 200 years of tradition.”

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