The Orem Owlz should have known better

Last Friday, the Orem Owlz, the Los Angeles Angels’ Rookie League affiliate in the Pioneer League, made news when it was discovered that they had scheduled “Caucasian Heritage Night” for their August 10 game against the Missoula Osprey.

Word on social media spread quickly, and within hours the Owlz canceled the promotion, saying that their “intentions have been misconstrued.”

You may have read that the Orem Owlz had long ago scheduled Caucasian Heritage Night as one of its 38 promotions.

Minor League Baseball, and the Orem Owlz, is about baseball, togetherness and family fun for all fans of all races, religions, and orientations. Our goal in this promotion, like any of our promotions, is to have fun and make fun of everyday normalcies. Our night was to include wonder bread on burgers with mayonnaise, clips from shows like Friends and Seinfeld and trying to solve the vertical leaping challenge. We understand, in light of recent tragic events, that our intentions have been misconstrued. For that, we sincerely apologize.

The Owlz are committed to all its fans, families and all fans of baseball alike – no matter who you are. The event has been removed from our promotional schedule effectively immediately.

Reading between the lines of the statement, it appears that the event was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek case of a group of people making fun of itself, like the “Stuff White People Like” website and book, or the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “White and Nerdy.” It was unfortunately named, though, with a moniker that gave no indication of being humorous. The description on the calendar –“Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, German…. or even Utahn! Whatever your background, celebrate it at the Home of the Owlz!” — gives only a small hint of the humorous intent, lumping Utahn in with various nationalities. (While failing to acknowledge, of course, there are non-Caucasian people in Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, and Utah.)

Is a humorous attempt at “White and Nerdy Night” better than an earnest celebration of white skin? Undoubtedly. This is most likely a case of a very poorly executed attempt at humor that represents far more bad judgment than malicious intent. According to former Director of Media Relations Joey Zanaboni — who resigned on Friday in protest of the Owlz’ handling of the situation — he had voiced strong objections to the event that went unheeded.

“After learning of the promotion during my first week [with the club],” Zanaboni wrote, “I raised serious concerns about it with multiple members of the front office, both verbally and via email. I registered my disagreement with carrying out such a promotion. I also warned that this event – no matter the intention of it – would cause public backlash.”

But here’s the thing: just because bad judgment is not as bad as malicious intent, that doesn’t excuse the Owlz. Their public statement — which implies that the promotion was a bad idea only because of the accidental bad timing related to the shooting in Charleston — has such a vibe of “We’re not jerks, we’re just idiots” that it never stops to think that maybe a public declaration of idiocy might not be a great idea.

It is funny that the statement mentions Seinfeld, because the whole situation reminds me of a classic Seinfeld scene:

I happen to be a prime member of the target market for the poke-fun-at-ourselves promotion the Owlz apparently thought they were planning: I am white, and I live just a few miles up the road from Orem. I love Friends and like Seinfeld. I have never had a hamburger on Wonder bread, but it sounds good. I can’t jump very high, although I suspect that has more to do with my weight and bad knees than my race. And let’s face it, I like an inside joke as much as the next guy.

The problem is that inside jokes alienate outsiders. When I am sitting around my parents’ house with my brothers and sisters at Christmastime and one brother accuses another of “eating the donuts,” we all laugh. But did you laugh when you read that? Nope. Because you’re an outsider.

So the Owlz’ promotion does not offend me because it makes fun of me — it offends me because of the image it casts on the Utah County area.

Orem sits right in the middle of Utah County, just a few miles from predominantly white Brigham Young University. Is Orem mostly white? Yes it is, although the percentage of “white alone” residents — 76.4 percent — is probably lower than people think, based on the number of joking tweets I saw along the lines of, “Isn’t every night in Orem ‘Caucasian Heritage Night’?”

But at 76.4 percent white, that leaves 23.6 percent “outsiders” to an inside joke about how silly we white people are. Are overdone, relatively unfunny jokes about white people worth alienating nearly a quarter of your potential fan base?

Some have asked what the difference is between Caucasian Heritage Night and some of the other “Heritage Nights” that teams hold. There are many answers. One is simple: Mexican or Filipino or Korean or any of the Heritage Nights I have seen are focused on one country, which actually has a decent chance of having a shared heritage. They are still not perfect — no two people are alike, no two families are alike, so almost by definition we have to delve into stereotypes to celebrate any group larger than one or two people — but at least they are based in reality.

There is no “Caucasian Heritage” to celebrate. Can you tell me one thing that I, a white man who was raised in Southern California and has lived in Utah for 20 years, have in common with a 13-year-old Swedish girl or a 96-year-old Tasmanian man other than the color of our skin?

So that’s the easy answer. There is a more difficult, uncomfortable answer. You see, in the United States — and in Utah even more than average — white people are the majority. The purpose of these Heritage Nights is to promote awareness of “otherness.” If there is one thing that does not need promotion or awareness here in Utah County, it is whiteness.

I have no desire to hold the white man down. I do not hate myself or my race. But I believe that the world is better when we all make an effort to have empathy (not sympathy) for those who are different from us. Planning a promotion that will, in the best-case scenario, leave a quarter of your fan base on the outside of an inside joke is a very good example of a lack of empathy.

So no, it doesn’t offend me as a white man being poked fun at. It offends me as a white Utahn who thinks we can, and should, do better.


One Response

  1. Paul Caputo

    Yup. Precisely. Minor league baseball teams can get away with a lot of funny, over-the-top promotions (see the Lehigh Valley IronPigs giving away foam #1 fingers on prostate cancer awareness night) but something like this, which smacks of basically celebrating white privilege, even if that’s not the intent, is really tone-deaf.


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