That Team in Washington

Change often comes slowly, often inexcusably so. It is often met with resistance, sometimes for financial reasons, or cultural reasons, or sometimes just for the sake of resistance. Today, though, a little bit more change has come, and it is long overdue. If you’re a fan of the NFL — or are friends with anybody who is — it’s likely you already know, but today the U.S. Patent Office ruled on the case Blackhorse v. Pro-Football Inc. that the trademarks of the Washington Redskins are derogatory and offensive — and are thereby cancelled.

It’s likely to be appealed again, of course. And it’ll probably be at least two generations before people stop clinging to the racist nickname. But it’s a start.

Those of us whose ancestors are native to this continent have put up with a lot over the centuries, to say the least, including the ongoing question of what we are to be called. I am a member of the Osage Nation; I would prefer to be called Osage when someone is referring to my people, as I am not a Nez Perce or Seminole or Choctaw. But I understand the need to refer to the entire race, as there are times when the entire race is being discussed, and because it is understandably difficult for people to always know exactly which of the several hundred nations an individual belongs to. In 1492, a confused white idiot underestimated the size of the planet and thought he landed in the Indies (today’s Indonesia), and dubbed us “Indians”. In the 1900s, the geographical inconsistency — as well as the confusion with the actual people of the East Indies, plus the people of India — led to the introduction of the term Native American. This term names the race after the continent, which is in turn named after a possibly-fraudulent Italian mapmaker. Both terms are still largely in vogue today, along with American Indian and Amerindian. All terms have their flaws due to potential confusion with other peoples, as The Simpsons once gently parodied (with Homer saying he was a Native American due to being born in the U.S., and Apu saying he was an American Indian due to naturalizing.) The Canadians may actually have the best term so far, calling the various tribes the First Nations. As for myself, I tend to use Indian; up until a recent rewrite, the Constitution of the Osage Nation referred to us as the Osage Nation of Indians. Still, I am generally unoffended by Indian, Native American, American Indian, Amerindian, or First Nations, so long as the term is being used with respect.

But Redskin has never been acceptable.

The word is a racial slur, and was conceived as such. It was used by the same people who attempted genocide, who then confined the native tribes to reservations in the hopes they would gradually die off. For an Indian, it carries the same emotional weight the n-word does for a black person, and for the same reasons. It was meant to dehumanize, to justify the unjustifiable; “It’s OK to do this; they’re only Redskins, they’re not like real people.”

It is disgraceful that a team anywhere in this country has been allowed to use such a vile slur as its nickname. It is doubly disgraceful that it is a team in our nation’s very capital. It says to Native American youth that their culture is worth mocking, that their heritage is something for other people to put on as a shallow pageant, as non-natives dress up in knock-off costumes of a mish-mash of tribes. It says that the very color of their skin is something to be derided as non-natives put on redface and “war paint”. The other day, ESPN’s Mark Schlereth made a point that echoes one my father has been saying my entire life, almost word for word: if they were called the Yellowskins or the Blackskins, it wouldn’t be tolerated.

Social media outlets have been blowing up today over the ruling, and sadly but unsurprisingly, there are a lot of people still clinging to attempts to defend the indefensible, just as Washington owner Dan Snyder has been doing. It’s called a tradition, but we’ve ended other racist traditions before. The fact is, it shouldn’t have been allowed in 1932, as the term was known to be violently offensive even then. But it certainly shouldn’t be allowed today; “we were jackasses before” is not a justification for being a jackass now. Some have said that not all Native Americans are offended by it. That may be true, but this is true of other racial slurs as well. There’s a rather well-known black rap group called N.W.A. — the N stands for the N-word — but there are still a lot of black people who find the word so offensive that it is considered taboo to type it even for the purpose of discussing how offensive it is. Of course, N.W.A. was trying to be provocative, but it’s not hard to find black people who toss the term around casually. The point is, “some of them might not be offended” is not logically equivalent to “none of them should be offended.” I’ve already been told three or four times this morning that I shouldn’t be offended by the team name. But it’s not up to someone else whether I or anyone of my race is offended. I am an Indian, and I am offended by the use of a deliberately derogatory term for my people as a team nickname.

I’ve also had my heritage called into question today. Nobody ever seems to doubt someone who says they’re Italian or Irish, but apparently if you’re an Indian, saying that you’re offended by a racial slur against you is an open invitation for people to ask what percentage of Native blood you have and whether you practice your tribe’s culture; whether you’re “a real Indian”, in other words. If you’re thinking of asking someone this, do me a favor first. Go talk to a black person. If you want to keep it related to the topic of sports and racism, ask them their opinion on Donald Sterling. Then ask them what percentage of African heritage they have, and whether they “really” practice African-American culture and beliefs. Can you even picture yourself doing something so offensive? And yet it’s a fact of life for an Indian who dares to speak up. I am an Osage. I know my heritage. I know the stories and histories of my tribe. And I know that it is not acceptable to use a racial slur against me and then try and make me justify my offense.

The last half-ditch attempt at defense I’ve seen is that there are other things to be worried about. Some have said the government shouldn’t have gotten involved. However, the Patent Office did not decide to take a look at this on their own; they were ruling on a case that was brought to them by a group of Native Americans. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is part of the First Amendment; it would set a very bad precedent for the federal government to ignore the First Amendment at whim. Others have said that Native Americans have bigger issues to be worried about; in fact, there was a poll a while back supposedly showing that Natives didn’t view the team nickname as a major problem. But I know something about polls and how they can be artificially skewed. There’s an old saying about how “numbers never lie”, but I’m a programmer with training in data analysis and statistics; I know that numbers do whatever they are told to do. In the case of this particular poll, it asked whether the team nickname was the biggest problem Native Americans face. Well, of course it’s not. There’s the widespread crushing poverty both on the reservations and off; the rampant alcohol and drug abuse as a result of that poverty; an epidemic of diabetes and digestive disorders due that same poverty and dietary changes forced upon generations through reservation life. There’s an abundance of violent crime against Native Americans; a report I read a few years back estimated 1 in 4 Native American women is raped at some time during her life. Then, of course, there are all the attempts — still ongoing in many cases — at depriving Indians of their lawful property, be it land or mineral rights.

Yes, there are certainly worse problems than the nickname of the Washington Redskins. But problems are not solved by ignoring all but the very worst of them. They are solved by asking if something is a problem, and whether it has a solution. And in this instance, the answer to both of those questions is an obvious “Yes”. The team name must be changed.

And I’m also concerned because of the associated baggage. For example, the Atlanta Braves have the “Tomahawk Chop” and other casually racist traditions. Cleveland’s baseball team is called the Indians, which isn’t quite an offensive term by itself but still feels uncomfortable somehow; could you picture them being called the Cleveland Jews or the Cleveland Greeks? (I could have said the Irish, but then I remembered Notre Dame; it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if some Irish-Americans find that nickname and mascot offensive, and I wouldn’t blame them if they do.) And of course, the mascot for the Indians is a horribly racist caricature. Again, put it in the context of another culture; remove the feather and make “Chief Wahoo”‘s skin black, and there would be calls for somebody’s head. But because it’s the Indians, it passes without comment from most fans.

That’s what makes me think that Washington needs to change their name to something completely unrelated. Because while their nickname is the most prominent aspect of the embedded racism in that fandom’s culture, it’s not the only one. Even if they were called the Washington Warriors, I suspect the same fans would keep putting on fake headdresses and making themselves up in redface, and would think they were entitled and supported in doing so. Change it to the name of an animal or some non-race-related occupation, and the racist holdouts will gradually taper off. As to suggestions, I don’t know; as I said, there are a near-infinite number of possibilities. (It’s too bad both Eagles and Patriots are already taken, as both would fit nicely for our nation’s capital.) Perhaps they could be the Minutemen, or perhaps they could honor old George himself and call the team the Generals.

Of course, that is looking to the future. For now, the team will almost certainly appeal the ruling as Dan Snyder persists in clinging to a racist tradition. Even if the ruling does fully take hold, it doesn’t stop the team from using the name, or even from making money on it — it just means that they are no longer protected from other people doing the same. Whether the loss of exclusivity will lead to sponsors putting enough pressure on Snyder and the NFL to force a change, I do not know.

What I do know is this: today, in a rare move, a branch of the U.S. federal government said to Native Americans, “Yes, you are a people worthy of the same respect as everybody else.” Felt kind of nice.

About Morgan R. Lewis

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9 Responses to That Team in Washington

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Hear, hear. Just because the stubborn NFL owner (and others in the millionaire sports club cadre) says he’s not being racist, does not magically un-make it derogatory. I thought the video by the National Congress of American Indians was fitting as a response. We should all keep pushing for the name change. Thanks for this, Morgan.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    I’ve only vaguely been following this, I also saw a post of 10 other teams names that would likely be changed which honestly felt like it was written by an idiot that was just as casually racist as those who are defending the Redskins name. Naming a sports team after a specific tribe, using that tribe’s actual name, is miles apart from calling a team a racial slur. (The Seminoles, Illini, and another whose name I don’t remember were right alongside the Braves, Chiefs, and Indians) And yet the author of the article apparently couldn’t make that distinction. I’m not a sports guy so I am even more baffled over how strongly someone can cling to a name when changing the name has next to zero negative effects and many positive ones. I would think that the teams merchandising would even get an influx of business as people simultaneously buy up the last of the “Redskins” merch in the misguided hopes that they will become worth something someday as well as buying merch with the new team name in order to be able to continue to support their team.

    • Yeah, I don’t get the stubbornness over the name change either. Snyder says “80% of the team’s fans don’t want a change”, but that’s the team’s fans — i.e., the people who haven’t already abandoned them for having a racist nickname. And even one out of five of them says “Yeah, that’s bad, you should change it.” The team would very likely have more fans if they didn’t have a racist nickname.

      As for using a specific tribal name… well, I touch upon that a little bit indirectly above when I talk about the baggage of using ethnic names, and the way the fans often create other racist traditions even when the name itself isn’t overtly racist. But no, in general, I don’t think a team that’s using a specific tribal name needs to change — if they’re putting forth an effort to discourage the racism. The Seminoles are a great example, because they’ve been on both the wrong and right side of this. They used to have various fake “Indian” catcalls, and a mascot who was played by a white guy wearing a mish-mash of fake Indian garb. Then they got in trouble over it, and instead of posturing the school decided to work things out with the Seminole people. The catcalls are (mostly) gone, and now the mascot is an actual Seminole Indian in actual Seminole garb. World of difference.

  3. ray brayne says:

    “Change often comes slowly”–indeed. The “Redskins” were the last NFL team to integrate in 1962. It took a threat of civil rights action by the Kennedy Admin. to get that done. The “skins” are worth a lot of money to the NFL. They hold attendance records going back years and years.
    We live in a racist country for sure. When Jim Thorpe tried for the olympics in 1911, the headline in the “New york Times” read, “Redskin will strive for place on American team”! Hell, Indians weren’t granted automatic citizenship until 1924!
    I don’t know what compromise it’s going to take but the name must change. Is the “Washington Redmen” any better? What do you think it should be?

    • Redmen is better, but only by a hair. While it doesn’t have the same “specifically coined as a slur” aspect to it, it’s still largely used as a derogatory term by non-Indians.

      As to what the name should be, I really do think that it should be changed to something completely unrelated. The nickname is the worst of the acts of casual racism by the team and its fans, but it’s not the only one. Things like dressing up in a hodgepodge of misunderstood cultural costumes and putting on “war paint” or out-and-out redface are commonplace among the fans. Even if the name were changed to something that weren’t a slur, if it still meant Native Americans, I think the fans would continue in the same activities. I’d rather just see the whole thing stop, and if they were the Minutemen, or the Senators, or what have you, the rest of the team’s racist traditions would lose their connection and would hopefully wither away.

  4. Pingback: Signal Intermittent | Morgan on Media

  5. fanboy2000 says:

    What’s really weird is that NFL teams have little trouble rebranding themselves. The Huston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans and the Cleveland Browns became the Baltimore Ravens. Both teams have been successful, with Super Bowl appearances since the switch and loyal fans.

    I mean, I know there will be backlash, but there’s backlash now. They’d just be switching who the backlash is coming from. And, personally, I’d rather be hated by racists than Native Americans.

    • Yeah. If changing location is enough to make a team re-brand themselves, you’d think “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be horribly racist” would be a good enough reason. Especially since there are probably a lot of people who would be fans of the team if they didn’t have a racial slur as their team nickname.

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