For a long time, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had a mascot known as Chief Illini, who appeared in full stereotypical Native American garb. The university retired the Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007 due to ongoing protests by Native Americans. Now, more than a decade later, “the chief” continues to have a presence in campus events, including the Homecoming Parade. This year, student leaders resolved to renew protest until Chief Illini was retired for good. In October 2017, Illinois Student Body President Raneem Shamseldin led a protest of the “former” mascot during the annual Homecoming Parade and has kept the pressure on campus officials to take complete action and find a new mascot.
We spoke with Raneem on how this issue set the tone for her presidency and how to navigate tensions between free speech and hate speech.
NCLC: You brought activists and student organizations together to protests the university's former mascot. What inspired this protest?
Raneem Shamseldin: The idea came out of a student government meeting. During the meeting, Native students or allies said they wanted us to do something about the Homecoming Parade and were visibly upset that the university still allowed someone to dress up in red face.Way before then, I sent a letter to the chancellor and the vice chancellor about our concerns, and they said nothing could be done because of free speech. That’s when we decided not to participate in the parade, but to instead participate in a different way. We started organizing the protest and before I knew it, we had 20 organizations on campus express interest in sponsoring us.
NCLC: Why did you organize this protest? How did you do it?
RS: We really wanted to get the message across that racism in any form is not tolerated and that we would fight it by any means necessary, even if that means stopping a parade.
Everything came together within 2 days. I met with the police department, my advisor, the dean of students and the vice chancellor to let them know about the protest.
NCLC: Did you feel like students’ voices were being valued at the time?
RS: At the time, our school had issues that were of more importance to the chancellor besides the former mascot. From a leadership perspective, I do understand, but the mascot should be easily solved.
I believe our voice has become more valued since the protest. The chancellor is now working with other administrators to rewrite policy for the next parade. He’s also started a conversation series where he invited former mascot portrayers and the director for the National Museum of the American Indian to one of our events.
I think the conversation made clear that people don't have bad intentions when they support the mascot, but intentions don't matter if the impact is negative.
NCLC: You later pushed for the removal the chief symbols throughout the university, included in the logo. Did you receive a lot of pushback from fellow student and faculty?
RS: Faculty and staff still had symbol hanging up in their workspaces. I worked on banning it from university buildings, and that’s when the free speech card was pulled. We were asking people who worked for the university to remove it because the University of Illinois owns that property. Since that was counter to the university's values, the university had every right to ask people to remove the logo. We’ve had it removed from over 30 different locations since then. The next step is to now find a new mascot.
NCLC: With the ongoing conversations about free speech, would you say this is more valued on your campus then diversity and inclusion?
RS: People pull the free speech card when they say something isn’t racist or inappropriate. You don't hear anyone using that card when talking about something that's not racist to some degree. We've seen a lot of issues because of free speech. I value free speech, but I do think what people say and do can have consequences.
NCLC: In addition to the mascot, what other issues have you tackled during the presidency?
RS: We formed a sexual assault prevention department. The department focuses on bystander intervention, finds ways to teach students what to do if they're in that situation, and recognizes when an assault is happening. We’ve hosted a few lunch and learns and invited people to talk about how to report something when it happens.
We're also working with the bars right now to put some flyers in all of their bathrooms with facts about intervening. Most assaults start at campus bars and we want to increase prevention rather than reaction.
NCLC: Any tips for future student body presidents looking to eradicate racism on an institutional level?
RS: Campuses are dealing with a lot of difficult issues that are not easy to tackle. You’ll have to go in with all of your heart and make this your number one priority because the changes you make on campus will make things better for the next group of people. If you don't speak up about some of these issues and then you're siding with the oppressor.
To help your institution become more proactive in building inclusive communities, we recommend you look at this blueprint for how institutions can handle hate incidents effectively.
Photo provided courtesy of Raneem Shamseldin