VANCOUVER — For more than 50 years, Simon Fraser University’s sports teams have played under the name The Clan, to honour the Scottish heritage of the school’s namesake.
But now, amid violent neo-Nazi marches in the United States, some professors and students are sounding the alarm that the name evokes a very different clan — the Ku Klux Klan.
Philosophy professor Holly Andersen has launched a petition to persuade the university to change the name, saying the word “clan” sounds the same spelled with a “C” or a “K” and is associated with a horrible history in the U.S.
She said SFU is the only Canadian school to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a league dominated by American teams, and it’s disrespectful to competitors, especially African-Americans, to force them to play against a team named The Clan.
“It is not that the term clan is itself racist. The issue is the context: in Canada that term is neutral, but in the U.S. it is as bad as a pretty bad swear word. Quite literally, it is a term that silences normal conversation,” she said in an email.
“U.S. teams know we don’t mean that Klan. But they also know that we know what it means in the U.S., and choose to play under that name anyways, which makes us look quite naive and disrespectful.”
The university was founded in 1965 and named after Simon Fraser, who explored the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century. The school embraced Fraser’s Scottish roots with a pipe band and by adopting the nickname “Clan” for its athletic teams.
SFU spokesman Kurt Heinrich said the concern about the team name is not new, but it has been given new impetus by recent events in the U.S. The university is sensitive to the issue, especially given its commitments to equity and diversity, he said.
“We will be reviewing the situation in light of recent events, and will consider what further steps, if any, might be taken to avoid possible misunderstandings relating to the use of this name by our athletic teams,” he said in a statement.
Andersen said a name change could be a positive thing that recognizes the Scottish heritage of the school. She suggested the Tartans, the original name of the student newspaper, or the Pipers, since the pipe band consistently rates among the top few in the world.
The word “clan” in the Scottish tradition means a kinship group, such as the Clan Fraser.
Student wrestler Aliocha Perriard-Abdoh said the name used to represent family and sisterhood to her, but after reading the petition she sees that it’s insensitive and potentially hurtful to African-American competitors.
“It’s a luxury for us to say, ‘That’s not how we mean it,’ but without taking into account someone else’s feelings,” she said.
Perriard-Abdoh said she’d like the university to poll student athletes, or students in general, about whether the team name poses a problem. Then there should be a discussion about a strong name that would unify and inspire players, she said.
More than 300 people have signed the online petition. One commenter wrote that when she hears The Clan, she immediately thinks of the KKK, and as a black SFU student, she didn’t think that was fair.
Another said they were a former student athlete and their team resorted to calling themselves “The Clams” to avoid embarrassment.
But at least one signatory had a different view: “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he wrote.
Heribert Adam, a SFU sociology professor specializing in comparative racism and multiculturalism, suggested the school do a better job of communicating the meaning of the name rather than change it.
He also said a more relevant debate would be a discussion of the role of Scottish settlers in Canadian colonialism.
“A petition is useful to create a debate and more knowledge about history,” he said. “If the word ‘clan’ leads to a discussion about racism in both countries, then it’s useful.”