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Washington State University
CAS Connect March 2016

In Motion: Rich King links funk, Foucault

Professor C. Richard "Rich" King
Rich King

An expert in the racial politics of culture, C. Richard “Rich” King, professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies (CCGRS), has helped shape the current public discussion about Native American mascots in sports. On faculty at WSU since 2002, he teaches many of the core courses in CCGRS and regularly offers courses in Native American and cultural studies.

Please tell us about your upcoming Fulbright residency.

I will be in Austria in 2017, teaching at the University of Graz and researching ethnic, racial, and religious difference in light of the recent wave of refugees and ongoing concerns about terror and security.

What inspired your research into Native American imagery in sports and marketing?

While I was completing my doctorate in anthropology at the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, an invented Indian icon, anchored student and sport culture. A white student danced in face-paint and regalia at football and basketball games, and the university endorsed and profited from selling merchandise emblazoned with stereotypic images. Rising opposition among American Indian students and their allies inspired me, and I devoted a chapter of my dissertation to the tradition.

This led to further study of such mascots, culminating in 2001 with a collection I co-edited, Team Spirits: The History and Significance of the Native American Mascots Controversy. Since then, interacting with leading intellectuals, activists, peers and their perspectives inspired me to fully engage the controversy, while increased action and public discourse gave me ample opportunity for research. This interplay between scholarship and activism were crucial in developing my latest book, Redskins: Insult and Brand, about Washington, D.C.’s professional football team.

What’s problematic about using Indian likenesses as sports mascots?

Detail from cover of King’s 2001 book ‘Team Spirits: The History and Significance of the Native American Mascots Controversy’
Detail from cover of King’s 2001 book ‘Team Spirits: The History and Significance of the Native American Mascots Controversy’

Imagery of this kind blurs the distinction between imaginary Indian caricatures and actual indigenous people. Scholarly studies have shown that, in spite of positive regard or good intentions, such uses and understandings of Indianness in sport actually harm people. Even so-called “positive stereotypes” negatively impact Native Americans’ self-esteem, their regard for their community, and their outlook on the future.

It also activates negative stereotypes and encourages negative assessments and bias directed at members of other marginalized ethnic groups. Given the research findings, it’s pretty clear that Native American mascots are a form of symbolic violence that targets individuals and communities and establishes a context of certain harm. The NCAA determined that they create “hostile environments,” and the American Psychological Association issued a position paper denouncing them.

Could you describe two experiences that helped shape your worldview?

Although it may be hard to think of two more disparate things, in 1986 I had a unique opportunity to hang out with the African American rock and funk band Fishbone, and at the time I was obsessed with the philosophical writings of the French social theorist Michel Foucault. For me, it was a period of intense personal and intellectual growth, sparked by new ideas and experiences. They catalyzed my desire to think more deeply about the world and things we take for granted. Indeed, much of my work considers the ways that people interpret and use popular culture—such as music produced by the likes of Fishbone—and it endeavors to account for the ways power and knowledge intersect in the world around us.

After 14 years, what’s your favorite thing about teaching at WSU and what helps you keep it fresh?

The best thing about teaching at WSU undoubtedly is the students. Their experiences and perspectives regularly inspire me, expanding my understanding of the material while pushing me to consider new questions in my research. I’ve been especially fortunate to work with a range of students, many from under-represented groups. Far from complacent, most of my students exhibit a curiosity about the world and a hunger for knowledge. Even those who are resistant to thinking critically about themselves and society present important opportunities for discussion and reflection in class, while they prompt me to refine my pedagogy.

I have two daughters—one is a student at WSU and the other will start college in Florida this fall. In the past few years, they have introduced me to completely new things while giving me better perspective on the preoccupations and pressures of my students. They have given me a deeper understanding of current college life, encouraging me to look at aspects of my teaching through an updated lens.

Please tell us about some of your community outreach activities.

Long Beach, Ms., October 4, 2005 -- Destroyed apartment building along gulf coast Highway I-90 as a result of winds and tidal surge from Hurrican Katrina. John Fleck / FEMA
An apartment building in Long Beach, Miss., destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by John Fleck / FEMA

Probably my most memorable outreach effort at WSU was when I joined a group of faculty in my department in raising more than $12,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief. We traveled to Seattle and collected donations from fans and alumni attending the WSU football game. Their spirit and generosity left a lasting impression with me.

Professionally, I’ve been active in interpreting race and racism as they manifest today and in advancing the study of sport in society. I served as president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and my work on mascots has led me to be an advocate and consultant for various groups, including NASSS, the American Sociological Association, and the Iowa Commission on Human Rights. I’ve also done pro bono consulting for legal cases in the states of Washington and Wisconsin, on a pending appeal in federal court, and with the National Museum of the American Indian.

What are among the most gratifying moments in your career?

This is tough—I’ve had lots of moments. For instance, it’s so gratifying when a student says that a particular class changed how they think about their life or helped shape their career path, or when a reviewer notes the valuable contribution of a piece scholarship.