'Redskins,' Names and Being Named

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Indian-based names and mascots lower the self-esteem of Native American children and perpetuate an inaccurate view of Native American culture.”

- The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

I am neither a sports fan nor Native American. I do, however, care about and pay attention to language and how humans use words to communicate our lived experiences and to name identities—our own and others’. US Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. posits that “a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

As I follow the heated controversy over naming, identity and cultural representation connected with the NFL’s Washington football team’s nickname and mascot, “Redskins,” I am surprised and confused that there is such vocal resistance to changing a name many deem an offensive racial slur. Particularly disturbing is NFL Washington franchise owner Daniel Snyder’s utter defiance about changing the name: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

Polling fans to gauge who is and who is not offended, as did Snyder’s camp, misses the point:  Cultural awareness and sensitivity is not about numbers but about perspective. This controversy is not about how many fans and non-fans are offended but rather that folks are indeed offended. Reporter William C. Rhoden’s assessment of this defiance is spot on: “Refusal to change an offensive name is emblematic of our society’s tendency to wrap ourselves in the armor of self-interest regardless of who might be wounded or offended.”

This controversy is also not about whether or not all American Indians are offended. The fact that there are those who are not does not negate the legitimate concerns of those like Oneida Indian Ray Halbritter, who says, “We no longer want to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We don’t want our children to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We want to be treated as what we are: Americans.”

To respond that “folks shouldn’t be offended” because the name is team “tradition” echoes the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag (not coincidentally a symbol embraced by white power hate groups) that still flies proudly and unapologetically in parts of the Deep South as though the country were still fighting the Civil War. Taking pride in one’s heritage is one thing; romanticizing the days of “Dixie” that—fortunately for many—are gone with the wind is another.

In Harper Lee’s classic book To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Atticus Finch gives this advice to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” To follow this advice does not mean painting faces and bodies and dressing in cultural costumes. Surely, those aware of the 1800s American minstrelsy tradition of mostly white men in blackface mocking blacks (think Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer) see that “redfacing” (as some Redskins fans do) is a cultural insult that belittles, degrades and reflects a lack of thinking about difference. This important conversation is an invitation and opportunity to rethink past neglects and insensitivity and to make meaning together in ways that unite rather than divide.

As Americans go into the holiday season, perhaps this conversation will positively impact how some public schools think about offensive reenactments of Thanksgiving rituals between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, how we reassess the great television westerns depicting “cowboys and Indians” and—by extension—the respect we extend to the first people of this land.

Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Comments

Thank you so much for this

Submitted by Pam Rud on 5 November 2013 - 4:52pm.

Thank you so much for this article. I really could not see the "big deal" as I didn't personally think the term Red Skins was offensive. I always had looked on it as being complimentary. This article made me see things differently and I truly appreciate it!

An excellent and well

Submitted by Bo Tunestam on 5 November 2013 - 5:16pm.

An excellent and well reasoned article. Thank you, Professor Lester!
My only suggestion would be to change the final words of the article from "the first people of our nation" to "the first peoples of this land". There are many quite different cultures, languages, and nations in their own right that make up the indigenous peoples of this land. They are not one "people" and their histories predate "our nation" by hundreds, even thousands of years.

Thank you, Bo, for your

Submitted by Adrienne van der Valk on 12 November 2013 - 11:42am.

Thank you, Bo, for your observation! This was an in-house edit, and I am happy you drew attention to it. TT relies on our readers to help us be mindful of language usage, and your comment is spot on. We will make that change to the blog post.

This is a wonderful article

Submitted by Kathy Gallivan on 12 December 2013 - 8:23am.

This is a wonderful article for the most part. However, here it is December 12 and the inappropriate term "American Indian" is still here.
I teach civil rights awareness in a white male military. I am a white(bit of a mix) female. The task is daunting and I feel somewhat successful if I at least crack open the door to blind spots. How can anyone understand what it is like to be a minority or a woman in a white man's world if they never even attempt to walk in our shoes? There is enough progress to keep me optimistic most of the time, but sometimes the task seems overwhelming.
Thank you for giving us so many tools.
Most respectfully,
Kathy

Preach it, Dr. Lester! I'm a

Submitted by Susan Conforti on 5 November 2013 - 6:32pm.

Preach it, Dr. Lester! I'm a Jewish rabbi who agrees with everything you've said. The creators of our government understood that we must protect the minorities as well as take note of the majority. Go Curley-Haired Kikes! Go Slanty-Eyed Yellows! Or, in the words of Bob Newhart, "Something, Something, Rah, Rah Rah!"

I believe that people are

Submitted by Teri D on 6 November 2013 - 9:01am.

I believe that people are making to big of a deal out of this.
I think it is an honor to have the team named after them. Why would you want to have it changed? They are being talked about not in a bad manner but in a good. It is positive to be put out there and being used. Does that mean that PETA is going to step in because we are using the Bears, Lions, Seahawks, etc... We aren't hurting them and we are using their names as well.

We had to change our school mascot because of the cultural thing going on now. I think that was very degrading because that has been our culture forever to use that symbol. I think we are all just getting to petty in this day and age and need to just grow up!!

When a dominant culture (read

Submitted by rocinante on 6 November 2013 - 12:01pm.

When a dominant culture (read mainstream US culture) embraces the idea that this dominant culture has marginalized and demeaned, insulted and otherwise just been egregiously flip about its attitude towards other cultures with pathological insensitivity it must stop this behavior, ergo maturity.

When we have continued, staunch refusal to admit that someone is causing pain or suffering to someone else because of one's actions this behavior is, at best, immature and potentially criminal.

We have embarked on a very long (albeit painful - redemption is always hard - see South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission) path of addressing historical wrongs, it's just that the USA and the West has committed so many there is a laundry list that won't finish any time too soon.

Teri, Fine then let the

Submitted by Andres Martinez on 6 November 2013 - 11:01pm.

Teri,

Fine then let the Redskins change their name to the "Pinkskins" with a glowing pink menacing white man modeled on their white owner - Daniel Snyder - as their logo and let the fans of the team go in pink face waving fake assault rifles, confederate flags, and money bags and hollering "YEEEE HAA!" in "honor" of the white man and team spirit. No big deal. Right? Menacing white men who are more pink than white who brandish assault rifles and confederate flags have been "our culture forever" too. Right? One stereotype is no worse than any other right? "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" as the white man or woman likes to say. Right?

It is unfortunate that people

Submitted by Ali on 7 November 2013 - 3:56pm.

It is unfortunate that people do not understand that the so called tradition is offensive to people. If the Washington Bullets can change their name to Wizards just based on wanting to foster non-violence why can't Washington's team demonstrate change to foster tolerance.

Disappointing response. It is

Submitted by Neal Lester on 9 November 2013 - 3:00pm.

Disappointing response. It is clear that these images don't affect you personally. That this dismiss this as a "culture thing" speaks volumes about the insensitivity I try to address. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, I believe, would that we could see the world through the eyes of another and not just our own....