Schools in Houston may soon be forced to end the practice of using culturally sensitive team mascot names like Redskins after an outcry from Native American advocacy groups.
The Houston Independent School District, one of the largest in the United States, issued a preliminary approval to the change in policy after a meeting Thursday — a move that could influence other school systems that are reconsidering mascot names that may be inappropriate. The decision may intensify the spotlight on the continued usage of the Redskins name by Washington D.C.’s NFL team.
The use of ethnic team names and mascots came under greater scrutiny this year with a campaign to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their name. Native Americans and others have long condemned the Redskins moniker as racist.
Two dozen people, including several Native Americans, spoke at Thursday's meeting in Houston, with more than half of them supporting the removal of sensitive cultural references from mascot names.
"The Lamar High School Redskins mascot name is just the tip of the iceberg of the racial discrimination against my people here in America. I am a human being. I am not a mascot," said Steve Melendez, president of the American Indian Genocide Museum in Houston. "If you want to honor me, teach the truth about genocide that took place here in Texas."
Another vote, scheduled for January, is needed before final approval of the policy.
If the board changes the policy, four school mascots would be affected: the Lamar High School Redskins, the Hamilton Middle School Indians, the Welch Middle School Warriors and the Westbury High School Rebels. The Rebels' name has been seen as a reference to the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Those against the change told the board that the references to Native Americans should be seen as an homage, not an offense.
"The Lamar Redskin at our school is a symbol of honor, a symbol of pride that we hold so very proudly," said Keffus Falls, a Lamar High School student who created an online petition to keep the Redskins mascot. More than 1,000 current and former students signed it.
"You will survive," Houston school board member Michael Lunceford told those who objected to the new policy. He added that the name of the mascot of his East Texas high school was changed in 1972. "The mascot is not what makes the school. It's the people in the school."
Houston schools superintendent Terry Grier, who supports the change, said earlier on Thursday that it is inappropriate for schools to use mascots that represent people.
"We would never think of having the Whitefaces, the Brownfaces or the Brownskins or the Blackskins as mascots," Grier said.
Despite rising outrage from Native American advocacy groups, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed he will never change his team's name. "I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means," he told USA Today in May.
The Washington Redskins did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's request for a comment about the Houston school district vote.
Al Jazeera and Reuters