By Brett Yates
When I read about the fiasco that ensued when the South Burlington School Board decided to change the nickname of the local high school’s sports teams, I had a moment of déja vu that took a few minutes of Googling to resolve.
In case you missed it, the racially insensitive moniker of the South Burlington Rebels—named in tribute to the Confederacy in 1961—has long generated controversy, even after the school stopped unfurling its Confederate flag at football games in the 1980s, but when the school board voted in February to replace it with a new name (to be chosen by the students of South Burlington High School), an outpouring of anger followed.
This anger took the form, ultimately, of a petition, a lawsuit, and repeated efforts to defeat the annual school budget proposal that would have allowed funds to replace the old athletic uniforms—not to mention a few death threats and a federal indictment for stalking.
Now, it looks like the name change is going forward, but the scuffle has left a mark. This story seemed bizarre for taking place in Vermont, the first state to abolish slavery, rather than in South Carolina, but it also felt familiar: had the same thing happened a few years earlier, somewhere else in Vermont? It seemed borderline impossible that two different high schools here would somehow have chosen to identify with the distant Confederate States’ fight to protect the slavery-dependent plantation system of the antebellum South—that is, to cast their athletic lot with people who were not only brutal racists but, frankly, also, losers in a war to which more than 5,000 Vermonters, on the winning side, had given their lives.
But then I found an article: in 2004, spurring similar outrage, Brattleboro Union High School retired its mascot, Colonel Reb, a cartoon plantation owner that the school had directly ripped off from the University of Mississippi in 1964. Its teams continued to call themselves the Colonels, a nickname referring not to the Confederate Army but to Colonel William Brattle, a Massachusetts landowner who served as the town’s namesake despite apparently never visiting the place. In the 1960s, Confederate iconography saw a resurgence of popularity in the South as a symbolic reaction against the growing civil rights movement, but Brattleboro’s Colonel Reb and South Burlington’s Rebels came about as less deliberate expressions of racial enmity; they were products of insensitivity and ignorance, rather than of genuine hatred, and trailed no political agenda. In each case, the school’s identification with the Old South was a jokey acknowledgment of southernness on a smaller geographic scale, and of a minor inferiority complex confronting a more powerful northern neighbor: Brattleboro knew that the football teams of Northern Vermont were thought to be stronger than those of Southern Vermont, and South Burlington, on a micro level, had the same relationship with the larger city of Burlington just above it. Naturally, in both cases, people eventually got attached to their school traditions.
The largely monoracial Vermont of the 1960s occupied a state of innocence: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X lived far, far away, and thoughts of them surely never occurred to the teenage students who, in a moment of pure laziness, selected a miscolored version of Ole Miss’s mascot to embody their school instead of drawing a logo of their own, or to those who thought it would be cute to reimagine South Burlington’s doomed role in a Chittenden County football rivalry as a new Civil War between North and South.
That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in Vermont; there are racists in every town, but the circumstances that would activate their racism aren’t always present. I have no idea how white kids in South Burlington or Brattleboro felt about black people in the 1960s, but it seems safe to assume that, whatever their feelings, they probably weren’t thinking about them at all when they decided on their local sports teams’ mascots.
It’s this innocence that white people—including certain old-school Vermonters who, with some resentment, saw their local politics shift leftward as back-to-the-land urban hippies migrated into the state in the late 20th century—want desperately to cling to, and they feel wronged and hurt when it’s stripped from them by the force of a more complicated and demanding ideology. Among the various types of white people who commit what are now perceived to be racist infractions in our politically correct nation, a few of them are neo-Nazi skinheads, but most are just nice people who never meant to hurt anybody—people whose only sin was failing to anticipate how some language or behavior that registers to them as benign might offend some other group that, as far as they’re concerned, has nothing to do with them or their lives.
These people can remember a time when a kind, decent person could act naturally—that is, in accordance with the behavioral standards of his own community—and not have to fear the censure of a seemingly external political force.
When the censure now occurs, the offending party is reluctant to self-correct, because to do so would be to allow his innocence to be tainted. If he admits that one thing he’s done is racist, the whole of his life then becomes subject to similar scrutiny, and the large-scale issues of the outside world begin, one by one, to tumble into his once pleasingly narrow personal realm. For most people, the idea that the problems of the world belong to all of us, that none of us is innocent from any of them, is a new one, and mostly unwelcome.
South Burlington High’s new nickname will be the Wolves, by the way. It’s inoffensive, to be sure, but it reflects the same absence of commitment to locational relevance that informed the earlier choice. Wolves have been largely extinct in Vermont for more than a century. My suggestion, for a true change of direction: the South Burlington Bernie Bros—although, of course, that would eventually be struck down for sexism.