There’s been a commotion about Simon Fraser University’s sports teams recently. Not anything to do with the sports themselves, or anything the players have done, but rather the name given to their team decades ago. That name is “The Clan,” and especially in light of the re-emergence of hate groups into the mainstream media south of the border, that word comes with a lot of connotations.
The conversation started last month when SFU philosophy professor Holly Anderson launched a petition to change the name of the team — which is a nod to Simon Fraser’s Scottish roots — out of respect for American, especially African-American, players on teams that The Clan competes with as a part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). While the innocent meaning of the word fits in with the Scottish heritage of the school, in the States, it’s more commonly associated with the notorious anti-black, anti-Semitic terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). As one would expect, the reaction to this petition has been strong, and decidedly mixed.
I understand there’s a lot of tradition tied in with sports names, and a sense of pride in representing your university. I also understand the objection that the word “clan” isn’t inherently offensive — as a person of some Scottish descent who enjoys learning about his heritage, I know my ancestral clan, and even their tartan and motto. But I also am not so fixated on maintaining a history and tradition that I think it’s more important than showing solidarity with people for whom the name evokes severe generational trauma.
For one thing, it’s not like the KKK is ancient history — all the horrible things you associated with them happened well into the 20th century, and the organization, and others like it, exist all across the States to this day, even more so since being emboldened by Trump’s blatant white supremacy and xenophobia. As Canadians, we did not learn the full extent of atrocities committed against black people — not just by the KKK, but by the general white American populace. Within the lifetime of our grandparents, it was common for white families in the South to attend hangings as part of a Sunday lunch. There are photographs of these lynchings showing people smiling and laughing, as the bodies hang in the background. In an interview with the CBC, Anderson explained that “in the U.S., it is as bad as a pretty bad swear word,” and using it evokes these painful traumas needlessly.
It’s not just an American problem, either. Remember October last year, when the KKK left flyers on doorsteps in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission? These are not distant issues, these are not other people’s problems, these are real people making real threats against members of our communities. After those flyers showed up, do you think every student at UFV wrote it off as nothing to worry about? I sincerely doubt it. I’m sure for a lot of our fellow students it was unsettling, unnerving, and scary. So if those students were on our athletic teams, what do you think went through their minds the next time they played against SFU?
It’s also not like SFU would have to give up their whole Scottish brand if they switched the name — Anderson suggested using “The Tartans,” which was SFU’s first student newspaper, or “The Pipers,” in acknowledgement to their famous band.
I understand that there’s a pushback right now against the “culture of offense,” and people will say it’s just a word and we’re being too sensitive. But honestly? Words have power, and if it’s a word that’s making people severely uncomfortable, a word that means all of SFU’s athletes have to awkwardly explain its origins to their American counterparts for fear of being thought of as racist, a word that conjures up images of centuries of hateful violence that largely had no consequence for the perpetrators, then I’m okay with changing it.
And if I heard tomorrow that the word “Cascades” evoked painful memories in marginalized groups of our society, I’d be all for changing the name of our sports team, and this very publication. I love language, I value the historic meaning of words, and I appreciate my own Scottish heritage. It’s just that I care even more strongly about letting people enjoy their lives with at at least one less reminder of how horrible the world can be — and has been.