- At least five schools in Midwestern cities use “midget” as part of their mascot names.
- Defenders are working to end the use of the word, which they say is a derogatory insult to the little people.
- Schools that won’t give up on the term say it’s not meant to be offensive and is part of their history.
Debates over the use of mascot names and images deemed offensive have often made national headlines, but one element of that discussion is receiving considerably less attention.
The word “dwarf,” used to describe short people, is still used as a school mascot in at least five cities in the Midwest, despite efforts by advocates to abolish its use.
“This is no way to refer to someone with dwarfism. It is a derogatory insult,” said Michelle Kraus, public relations manager for Little People of America.
LPA, a nonprofit that provides support to short people and their families, has long pushed to end the use of the word, including as a mascot. Representatives of the organization have met with schools that use the term, but this has not always resulted in a change.
Now, as more schools abandon Native American mascots, and after racial inequalities were calculated last summer, LPA hopes its continued advocacy will be met by communities that are more receptive to change now than they are. were in the past.
The M word
The word “dwarf,” or the M word, is considered a derogatory slur that should never be used, according to LPA, whose 8,000 members include short people and people of average height. A survey by the group found that 90% of its members believed the word should never be used in reference to someone with dwarfism.
“The dwarfism community has expressed that they prefer to be referred to as dwarves, short people, short people or people with dwarfism, or simply, and preferably, by their first name,” the group said.
Kraus said she thinks a lot of people may not know the word is considered an offensive insult, so part of the band’s mission is to educate the public on the term. Before an Insider investigation, even Google’s definition of the M word did not describe it as offensive, as it does when the N word is searched. After Insider asked about it, Google added an “often offensive” label at the top of the definition.
LPA said the word was never an official term for people with dwarfism, but was coined in performance spaces when little people were exhibited for “curiosity and sport.”
5 Midwestern Schools Still Use Their Mascot Names
At least five schools or school districts still use the word as part of their mascot names: Dickinson High School in North Dakota, Freeburg Community High School in Illinois, Butternut Schools in Wisconsin, Estherville Lincoln Central in Iowa and Putnam County Schools in Missouri.
None of the schools and districts really know how they got started using the M word as part of their mascot IDs, but some have an idea. In the case of Butternut, a world champion wrestler, Charlie Fischer, grew up there and was given the nickname “dwarf” because of his small size. The mascot began to be used as a sign of dedication to the hometown hero, prompting the school to disagree with LPA’s classification as offensive.
Other schools believe they adopted the nickname in the early 1900s because the physical sizes of members of their basketball teams were smaller. In Freeburg, legend has it that a local sports writer nicknamed the team “the dwarves” after a particularly off-pair match, prompting the nickname to stick around.
“It was a good photoshoot, but it didn’t produce any change”
LPA has made in-person visits to schools to advocate for change, although the pandemic has put some of those efforts on hold. In 2015, LPA visited Freeburg and held a press conference where they hand-delivered a petition with over 2,000 signatures urging the school to change its mascot.
Kraus said they had conversations about the impact of the M word on the little people community and what it would mean to the townspeople if the mascot changed.
“It was a good photoshoot, but it didn’t produce any change,” she said.
A school board member at the time said the community was happy with the nickname, adding “once a Midget, always a Midget,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Current school board members did not respond to Insider’s multiple requests.
Most recently, representatives from LPA spoke at a school board meeting in Dickinson, North Dakota, a town of about 23,000 people, in December 2019. LPA made a presentation to the board and the groups engaged in friendly conversations on the issue.
But in February 2020, the school board decided not to focus on the name change after a community poll found 65% were in favor of keeping the mascot’s name, while only 35% were in favor. replacement, The Grand Forks Herald reported. Members of Dickinson’s school board did not respond to several emails from Insider.
When prompted by resistance to change the mascot, school officials and community members most often say that they never intended the mascot to be offensive and do part of their story. But Kraus said it was no less difficult to understand this kind of thinking.
“The losses were tough because we put a lot of effort and then it backfired on us, and it’s really hard to understand the psychology of it,” she said, adding that she thinks lingering misconceptions about little people can be blameworthy.
“They say dwarfism is somehow considered okay to mock, to belittle, because there aren’t that many of us.”
Kraus said depictions of little people on TV and in movies are also a big hurdle. Instead of showing little people in a way that shows they’re like everyone else, she says it’s often “just a joke.”
Full of hope in the era of accounts with the past
Although some schools continue to resist, at least two have abandoned the M-word mascot in recent years. In 2016, a South Dakota high school on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation changed its mascot to the Mustangs. In 2019, a high school in Wisconsin changed their mascot to the Northstars.
“The change in these two schools has been really, really helpful for us,” Kraus said. “Not only because we saw that it is possible, but also because they were ready to be very helpful in talking about the change with other districts.”
Kraus said changing behaviors can take time and things are already a lot better than they were in the past. In 1996, for example, when three members of Dickinson’s school board decided to drop the mascot, they were ousted after a community outcry. The Associated Press grabbed the headlines at the time as a “politically correct school board.”
LPA will continue to advocate with remaining schools and explore new strategies. Kraus said it was important for the next generation of little people, so that “they can start from a young age to understand that they are like everyone else and that they don’t deserve to be humiliated.” .
She also said the organization hopes society in general becomes more empathetic to the concerns of marginalized groups.
“We’re really optimistic in this age of communities and people really taking stock of the past and having a racial calculation,” Kraus said. “It’s about taking into account how they perceive people with disabilities and thinking more about the potential, abilities and humanity of people as opposed to the sports teams that once were.”
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