As a three-sport athlete at South Albany High School in the mid-1980s, I embraced my identity as a Rebel. I gave no second thoughts to the Confederate flag on the gym wall where I played basketball; I cheered when that flag was rushed across the football field after touchdowns (which were, at the time, few and far between). My friends in band wore cool uniforms that mimicked those worn by Southern soldiers in the Civil War, and I never considered that the uniforms — or the heritage they symbolized — might be problematic.
Thirty years later, I have a much clearer sense of why these subtle nods to the Confederacy are troubling, and why a change to the South Albany mascot and emblem is necessary, especially now, given our country’s racial discord. Beyond the ways South’s mascot connotes America’s painful past, though, changing the mascot is necessary because it is fueling division within South’s community and among its alums: a divisiveness that undermines a mascot’s purpose, which is to unify people behind a common goal or idea.
Social media conversations reflect the unfortunate conflict that has fractured the South Albany community. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks on social media sites have made reasonable discussion impossible. Like others who desire that the mascot be changed but who live in other parts of the country, I am told that my opinion doesn’t matter, further alienating me from a place I once called home.
In a statement issued late last week, Superintendent of Greater Albany Schools Jim Golden acknowledged the discord playing out on social media sites, characterizing it as “screaming” and asking that the community engage in polite discourse. His statement, which supports the need for inclusion and equity, also suggests that students within South Albany, alongside school faculty and administrators, would alone be responsible for any changes to the mascot.
Golden’s statement seems short-sighted, failing to account for the long view. Younger people cannot think as critically about the potential messages a Rebel mascot can convey, about racism and about our country’s past. My own blithe acceptance of the Confederate flag when a teenager suggests the students at South Albany need context for these discussions, facilitated by adults who can help them understand the power—intended or unintended—of messages embodied in symbols, images, fight songs, chants, band uniforms, and more.
Any discussions about a mascot change also ignores the impact of white privilege. Equity and inclusion can only happen when minority voices are part of the conversation. And while some have claimed that the people of color in Albany love the current mascot, I wonder whether their voices have really been heard, and whether their lack of power and privilege influences what they feel safe to say — or not.
Mascots are intended to unify a school, its students and faculty, its community and alums. In addition to the potentially damaging messages the current mascot conveys about race, diversity, acceptance, and equity, the mascot needs to change because it divides rather than unifies people; and it seeks to exclude, telling some people that they don’t belong to an educational community that might have, at one time, been life-changing.
Such was the case for me when I attended South. My four years at the high school were transformative, my teachers and coaches inspiring. I made life-long friends there, and remember my time at South with great warmth. Who I became at South Albany had nothing to do with the school’s mascot and everything to do with the people there.
Those who argue the Rebel image is crucial to their high school identity should remember that changing the mascot does not change anything about the fundamental character of the school, because what makes South Albany great is not its mascot, but its people. South was, and is, a strong and vibrant community. It’s time to show others how truly amazing that community is by unifying around a symbol that does not convey disunity, strife, and discrimination.