After the height of the pandemic and an unconventional few years, this year’s homecoming was highly anticipated by students. The original theme of the dance had been set to be rodeo-formal, but the theme was changed to “wear whatever you want” by the Spirit Committee after controversy surrounding racial implications sparked debate across the high school.
The decision was announced by senior and Spirit Committee co-head Nora Smulson in an email to high school students on Sept. 22. The decision-makers submitted to a historically inaccurate version of real cowboy and rodeo history. Many of the arguments made by students in favor of canceling the theme for the dance, which took place on Saturday, Sept. 24, stemmed from the belief that rodeo is a white tradition that does not make space for marginalized identities. Ironically, the decision to cancel the rodeo theme marginalizes those very identities.
Be it in movies or real life, proponents of white oppression have tried to eliminate any trace of diversity in the Wild West. Larry Callies, founder of The Black Cowboy Museum, made a video about how even the classic Western stories in Hollywood movies, which almost exclusively star white people, were inspired by Nat Love, a Black cowboy known for his impressive skills as a gun-toting horseman.
By canceling the rodeo theme, the people who decided to do so have negated Love’s legacy and further erased marginalized stories from Western culture, leading to our own sabotage; GDS students of color shouldn’t deny a culture that has always been ours just because white-washed media stereotypes have distorted the truth about Western history. In reality, cowboy culture isn’t a race; it’s a lifestyle—one that people of many ethnicities and cultures have lived and celebrated for centuries. In the abandonment of the rodeo-formal theme, we are suppressing the proud celebration of a culture that belongs to everyone, including white people, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and more.
While white society has long oppressed voices of color in Wild Western culture, that doesn’t mean rodeos and cowboys themselves are inherently racist. In fact, people of color were some of the earliest cowboys—the Smithsonian found that Black people constituted about 25 percent of all cowboys in the nineteenth century.
“Most of the cowboy’s basic equipment was invented by earlier Mexican cowboys,” C.R. Gibbs, a D.C.-based historian and expert on African-American history, wrote to me in an email. Just last year for GDS’ History Speaker Series, Gibbs spoke about the historical impact of Black cowboys in America.
For some, historically, the rodeo was even a way for people of color to be freed from prejudices they faced in their daily lives. An article from the National Council for the Social Studies says that in the history of rodeo, “the Native was not locked in the stereotype of primitive savage, but could be established as a skillful horseman or roper.”
However, it is also true that people of color have faced oppression in Western culture throughout history, even in the rodeo. “Take, for example, what happened to Jesse ‘Second Place’ Stahl,” Gibbs wrote. During the Jim Crow Era, Stahl was a Black cowboy who was exceptionally talented at bronco riding. “Even when he won an event, he often wasn’t allowed to receive the winner’s trophy or prize,” Gibbs wrote. “He would usually be awarded second place, if he got an award at all.”
A new generation that includes Black rapper Meghan Thee Stallion and the Cowgirls of Color—the first all-female rodeo team in the DMV—is reclaiming their Western heritage. Singer Lil Nas X has been at the forefront of this movement. His hit song “Old Town Road” is a celebration of Black cowboys—a reminder to the world of their rightful presence in America’s idea of Western history.
Director Jordan Peele’s new movie Nope is another example of how minorities are forging space for themselves in the whitewashed representation of the Wild West. The plot centers on OJ and Emerald Haywood, an African-American sibling duo who runs a family ranch, and Jupe Park, an Asian-American owner of a Western-themed amusement park.
As someone who is half-Chinese, I am really excited to see people of Asian descent celebrating the Wild West since it’s a cultural combination that is not often portrayed online or in the movies, despite the fact that Asians played an important role in settling the Old West. When I heard the dance’s theme was a celebration of rodeo, I was eager and hopeful to get to embrace cowboy culture during homecoming.
Just because in the past, Hollywood perpetuated the inaccurate image of the cowboy as a white savior doesn’t mean we have to buy into the stereotype we so clearly know is false. As a school that just last year hosted Gibbs to speak about the diversity of Western culture, how could the administration elevate that idea of inclusivity through Gibbs’ speech and then go on to suppress it by canceling the homecoming theme?
Though I and many others—about 60 percent of attendees, as estimated by junior Avery Brown—still wore rodeo attire to the dance, it felt disheartening and pointless to do so because it wasn’t reflected in the theme or the decor. It felt like the GDS administration was not willing to recognize that people of color have a place in rodeos. In their quest to avoid controversy, the change of the homecoming theme was a missed opportunity for the administration to combat racism.
Ultimately, it’s up to the GDS community to decide whether it stands with the people who celebrate diversity in cowboy culture, or whether it will be an institution that suppresses inclusion. By upholding the original theme for homecoming, we would have been setting the record straight: rodeos are for everyone, and always have been.