Saturday, January 23, 2010

Who Dat? Not A Saintly Cheer

The New Orleans Saints are very much the feel-good story of the NFL these days. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina just four years ago, their place atop the standings this season symbolizes the resiliency of their great city.

But as Andy pointed out to me the other day, Saints' fans' cheer of choice symbolizes something quite different. To those unfamiliar, Who Dat? might sound like a southern take on the common Whose House? cheer. It isn't. It is a line popularly used in minstrel shows. (If you think minstrel shows have something to do with nomadic lute players of yore, do some Googling to learn about the minstrel shows popular from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.) Although minstrel shows were popular across the U.S. and, indeed, Europe, they marketed a southern image, presumably for "authenticity." Claiming a connection to New Orleans was, perhaps, the most popular technique.


This is not a legacy anyone should be cheering. The claim that the cheer "celebrates" New Orleans is no more persuasive than the claim that the confederate flag can be used to celebrate southern pride without celebrating slavery and racism. The confederate flag represents the South because it evokes the decision by the southern states to secede in an attempt to perpetuate slavery. Similarly, Who Dat? represents New Orleans because it evokes the city's historic ties to minstrel shows. In either case, you can't reach the ultimate conclusion without the intervening racist imagery.

Think back to the tomahawk chop, as utilized by fans of any number of teams, but particularly the Atlanta Braves. The tomahawk chop is obviously problematic because of the unmistakable connection between the mascot of these teams and the deeply racist image of Native Americans as savages. No matter how sincerely the fans believe they hold no racial animus, the act alone perpetuates a racist caricature.

Who Dat? is no better, and perhaps worse. Although the connection between the cheer and its minstrel roots may be less obvious to the general public than that between the tomahawk chop and a Native American mascot, this only serves to illustrate the intentional selection of the cheer because of its unmistakeable connection to New Orleans; it can't be coopted by another team in another city. Who Dat? is the Saints' cheer because New Orleans has a uniquely strong association with the minstrel shows that popularized the cheer originally.

Saints' fans are rightfully proud their team, but they should not be proud of this cheer. As the Saints march on toward the Super Bowl, more and more people will hear the cheer and wonder what it means. If they take the time to find out, I hope they will justifiably be embarrassed for the Saints.

A sad thought at a time when we should be so proud New Orleans, its people, and its football team.

10 comments:

Sunny in SoCal said...

Great article, very true and poignant. Thanks for breaking down the history of sports and some of the inappropriate cheers that fans embrace.

Anonymous said...

New Orleans also has a large black population, who also participate in the cheer. Did it ever occur to anyone that perhaps by embracing this cheer they're actually breaking down racism. Just a thought to ponder. Maybe everything isn't as one sided as you might think.

ArtJacks said...

@anonymous
That's like saying black folks use the n word to break down racism.

ron d said...

yeah....most black people dont even know what it means. ive been trying to get this message across to all of my friends.....not only is it racist but it just makes them sounds ignorant like they dont know how to talk.

Anonymous said...

Everything can be made racist if you look hard enough. People change over time as do phrases. The phrase is no longer derogatory. It is associated with a team and is simply asking who exactly believes they can beat the Saints? This year the fans are excited beyond belief because at the end of the year the answer is "nobody." My family and friends for year have used "who dat" when we answer the phone. Not once has a racist thought crossed my mind when I answered using those words. It is fun for locals (including blacks just ask the Ying Yang Twins) to say who dat. Who dat is often followed by Who Der. Who der of course means where are you? The race card is not needed in this instance. If you don't think terms or words change meaning overtime, just ask anyone in this time period what the word "gay" means. Then make a time machine and go back 100 years and ask someone what "gay" means. You will get two different answers. When at least 99 percent of the population of New Orleans (guessing here on that) uses the word without any racial implications, then it is officially no longer the racist word you make it out to be.

Anonymous said...

Amos, Thank you for your post. I'm afraid I am not an NFL fan and didn't know about the chant until shortly before the Super Bowl. I was horrified and embarrassed by it. I have discussed it with several friends, asking them "Why isn't it considered racist? How is it better than the Braves 'chop chant'" You expressed my thoughts elegantly and thoroughly!

Anonymous said...

The whole racism dialogue is just kinky bullshit. Let's start discussing that skinny women get all kinds of money and opportunity, while fat women get crap.

What, that won't get ratings? OK, back to our regularly scheduled white chicks and black dicks show.

Anonymous said...

Pathetic, simpering drivel.

Anonymous said...

Here in south Louisiana, everyone, black, white and their mothers, uses this chant. In public, all the time, even to strangers of other races. It's a form of bonding during playoff season. The phrase I has terrible roots, yes, but it has been reinvented. It can't be compared to offensive faux Indian chants that stadiums full of non-native people are chanting after been told by native-Americans the chants are offensive.

Who dat!

Nola Home Advocate ACA Realty said...

It is only racist if you consider uneducated dialect a matter of race instead of a product of the lack of education. Contrary to what many believe, the who dat saying started in local highschool (Carver in the lower 9th ward). But in defense of this article. In America (founded and built on racism) there is very little that is not connected to racism. It's in the countries (DNA). America is a racist country. It always has been.