Facebooking the Chief

Pulled from the first revision of the research proposal.

The Chief Debate Reflected on Facebook

            The longstanding debate about Chief Illiniwek has plagued and divided the University of Illinois for decades.  Following the decision by the UIUC board of trustees in the spring of 2007 the Chief as a mascot and symbol of the university was formally retired.  One should note that even the language employed to refer to this event is problematic – to retire the Chief implies that he was withdrawn from active participation and that his presence and work was legitimate and sanctioned in the first place.  Some people prefer the use of the word removed or deposed as it illustrates a more forceful change reflecting shifts in power.  The student action in the wake of the Chief decision was rampant with racism.  Previously to engage in the debate most contenders felt they should inform and educate themselves in regards to the issue, as fewer people were arguing and the ones that were tended to be passionate and intelligent.  The announcement instigated a crescendo of student voices and opinions of all kinds – suddenly the norm became a call for what was painted as student solidarity and pro-Chief organizers rallied behind pronounced ideals of honor and tradition.  They worked to construct a view of the Chief as one of school spirit and pride and attempted to disconnect race and racism from the picture by reducing their definitions to the biological and semantic ones without giving due consideration to the intrinsically socially constructed nature.  The movement fell akin to the Republican and conservative Christian movements today that accuse any dissenters to causes of war or religious regulation as un-American.  Suddenly if you were not pro-chief, you had to be anti-UIUC.  Numerous argumentative offshoots clustered around the question, including calls to refocus attention on “more relevant issues” such as world hunger or racism against Black and Latino people, but these, while perhaps legitimate, just served to divert the issue.  Others tried to break the debate down to questions of mascots vs. symbols and corporate copyright control over logos.  Too bad we don’t have any companies with a Swastika as a logo to point to.  Others held the Chief up because of his alleged involvement in learning Native American traditions and supposedly authentic replication of culture.  Few students knew that the Illini were a coalition of tribes forced into existence many years ago (upon the brink of their eradication) and have not formally existed for over two centuries.  What’s more is that the misconstrued of the age of the Chief tradition – like Christianity believers feel it has somehow always existed and is totally unquestionable and yet the Chief, like the Bible, was once conceived (and did not always exist!), as well as constructed, negotiated, and developed over time.1  All of these spins on the debate seem to detract from what ought to be identified as the bottom line: race.
            Ownership and representation of an identity is appropriated in accordance with its members – for individuals this consists of just oneself, but for collectives and groups the composition is comprised of numerous agents.  What many students fail to recognize is that a White person was enacting as a Native American as the Chief.  Some extremists will exclaim that any representation of another person will result in stereotypes and unfair perceptions, but most agree that the person or group represented ought to have control over their representation.  This facilitates for positive relationships in sports and Native American communities as seen with the Florida Seminoles, where the tribal administration is involved with the horse and warrior portrayal.  We still ought to question these situations, however, as tribal officials may be corrupt or the resulting relationship might be a consequence of the lesser of two evils.  If a tribal nation is so impoverished as to be barely able to take care of their own people they will be more likely to compromise parts of their tradition and image for the sake of mere survival.  In essence the bottom line of the Chief escapade is that a white majority member was representing a minority group image and offended this group.  Beyond the offense they should not be representing something they are not, especially when it comes to a social conflict as volatile and important as race.
            Perhaps more interesting than the debate between different sides2 are student reactions to the decision.  When the social norm became “everyone has to have an opinion” many, many ignorant views began to surface.  As is noted in the research mentioned in the CMC literature review section, the internet provides a place where people can feel more confident in making more assertive and strong comments.  The somewhat exaggerated Facebook threats3 made by a White majority male member to a Native American female leader in the anti-chief movement are just one such example.  Numerous campaigns to save the Chief were set in motion, with ideologies varying from encouraging Alumni to not donate to finding an ‘official’ Illini Indian (yes, you are correct, this is not possible) to play the Chief to demonizing anti-Chief advocates as self-serving minorities.
            Facebook is of course permanently beta so students found avenues of control with which to more generally express their opinions and protest.  The only large (4000 member+) UIllinois Facebook group to grow between spring 2006 and spring 2007 was the “Chief Illiniwek Forever.” group.  This group surpassed the “Illini Basketball Has the Best Team In the Nation” group to now hold the largest membership of any public or private UIllinois Facebook group with a standing total of over 7790 members4.  The largest competing anti-chief groups, by comparison, are “Anti-Chief” and “F* the Chief” each standing at around 280 members.  The difference between group size and opinion representation is astronomical.  The group “Never Forget Chief Illiniwek” came leaping up on the high membership docket since the decision, that is a couple of months, now ranking in the top ten at almost 4200 members15. The posts and participation in these groups are indicative of their corresponding movements and beliefs.
            The UIllinois Facebook network has over 100 Chief groups, including alternative mascot proposals such as the Master Chief from Halo, the Chef (culinary expert), the Illini Dinosaurs, and Farmbot.  Other groups make powerful statements with titles such as “If they get rid of the Chief I’m becoming Racist,” (now deleted), “If you hate the Chief then I hate you,” “Keep the Chief and Fuck the Hippies,” “I’m anti anti-Chief People,” and “Pro-Chief People Wouldn’t Know Racism if it Bit Them on the A$$.”5  Personalized student response varied as well and most commonly included changing ones Facebook profile picture to be the Chief logo.  Though I do not yet have a count there was a blatantly noticeable frequency of this action.  Resistance and deviant reactions to this movement of course followed and some students posted pictures of the Chief logo with the word “Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize” over it.  Others, in the tradition of not taking college too seriously, employed pictures of the Chef (again, culinary expert) or “Shoop-Da-Whoop”.  Even after asking users who changed their pictures to “Shoop-Da-Whoop” and consulting Google as to its origins I can’t determine what exactly it’s from.  People don’t know for certain6 – which is part of the fun – but it seems to have ancestry in anime cyberculture like “All your Base Belong to Us” or “WTF mate” and countless other mostly inconsequential digital culture phenomena.  After some liminal searching ‘encyclopaedia dramatica,’ a wiki (a website any-user may modify), suggested that the image comes from Dragonball Z and is a blacked out face depiction (not quite black-face) of the character “Imperfect Cell” shouting and shooting a laser from its mouth.  A permutation of the image is titled as Nigra Cell firing a laser which apparently is sometimes referred to as a ‘niggerbeam.’ 7  If I were to guess I’d see this picture to be conceived as a harmless joke that took on racist elements, but I don’t feel confident in making such claims at this point in time.
            The capacious conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing observations and analysis is that latent and covert racist and activist student reactions were acutely manifested in the wake of the official end of Chief Illiniwek.  The impact of such outcomes definitively shape student perceptions and forms of identity, communication, and reality.  The system reflects a continuation of student minds and personalities and their accompanying intricacies such as racism.  Organization, membership and participation in groups and social causes on Facebook extend and promote social capital.  In all, Facebook stands as an outstanding and distinguished influence on the contemporary student population and we as researchers have a duty to understand this as much as any other topic of sociology.

[1] My comments here are editorial in nature – it’s common knowledge that Christianity has a developmental history, the Bible originally being collected together from an array of sources at the first council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  My purpose is not to question the validity or reliability of the tomb, but instead recognize that it too was created and did not always exist.

[2] Which should merit other studies – trends can be seen between white vs. non-white, Christian vs. non-Christian, liberal vs. conservative, discipline of study, and more.  There are a ton of power dynamics at play!

[3] The story is under explained and overemphasized – a student threatened to throw a Tomahawk into the Face of a specific Native American leader in a public group wall posting.

[4] As of May 11th, 2007

[5] Just based on search observations and personal knowledge; search for yourself or I can provide screen shots upon request.

[6] You figure it out, I dare you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N2Ttqxa_TA.

[7] I trust this source like I trust holding a grenade with the pin pulled, but I invite you to take a look nonetheless: http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/index.php/IMMA_CHARGIN_MAH_LAZER