Fair warning: I’m going to use some bad words in this post. Racial epithets, mostly, but I’m going to discuss them as words, not employ them as slurs. Still…you’ve been warned.
I’ve been having a running
argument discussion with some folks online about the name of the Washington DC NFL franchise: the Redskins. In this particular corner of my interwebs, I’ve been the only voice supporting a change in that team’s name. Everyone else on the thread has been holding staunchly to the team’s rhetoric (the thread was begun by a Marylander and supported by her local cohort, so the loneliness of my stance is explainable, though still incomprehensible to me.)
In general, the discussion has been civil. It has not been a debate, however, as none of my researched assertions have been refuted.
The argument on the “Keep It” side boils down to this: We don’t mean to be offensive; we mean to honor.
The thing is, I believe them. They don’t mean to be offensive. They do intend to honor the strength and resilience of this continent’s native populations.
The fact, though, that most Indian groups, tribes, and organizations find “the R-word” to be a racial slur carries no weight for these Redskins fans. The fact that every major dictionary (e.g., Oxford English, Merriam-Webster, Collins, Cambridge, Macmillan) defines the term as “offensive” carries no weight either. Also deemed worthless to these fans is the fact that this call for mascot change is supported by social and educational institutions, by journalism groups, and by a long list of religious leaders, elected officials, and celebrated names.
“But,” the chorus sang again, “We’re not being offensive because we don’t intend to give offense.”
Facts failing me, I tried analogies. Imagine, I said, that there was a team called the Washington Kikes or the Washington Niggers or the Washington Gooks. When the team was named, the intention was to celebrate the strength and indomitable spirit of the group typified by each term. Would you accept those names?
“But,” these fans reply, “redskin wasn’t a pejorative term when the team was created, so that doesn’t apply.”
Okay, let’s say that’s true (it isn’t–the team was started in 1968 when “redskin” was an established racial epithet–but let’s say it was). “Kike” has several possible etymologies, some of which are inoffensive. “Nigger” began as a dialect form of negro. “Gook” (according to some etymologies) had a fairly innocuous start. The origin doesn’t matter (I argue) if over time it has become a racial slur.
“But,” I was told, “We’re taking the term back, using it in a positive way, like ‘Yankee’ or ‘The Fighting Irish.”
“Yankee” and “The Fighting Irish” are terms that were adopted as their own by those the words were intended to offend. With only a few isolated exceptions, “redskin” has never been adopted by American Indians. It remains, to the vast majority of them, a racial epithet. Besides, the Washington Redskins owners and fan base are not in any major proportion made up of Native Americans; they are the social group who have used it as an epithet, and therefore cannot adopt or “take back” this term.
“But,” they said, “you’re being hypocritical. You don’t call for a name change for teams like Kiowas, Apaches, Blackhawks, and or Cowboys and Saints.”
…which was followed by…
“There are a lot more important things to worry about than the name of an NFL team. Like ISIS.”
I think the above is a perfect description of winning the battles but losing the war.
It doesn’t matter if you intend to offend someone; what matters is if you have offended someone. We’ve all given unintentional offence: we say the wrong thing or say it ineptly. When I’ve done this, I apologize and endeavor to not repeat the behavior. Simply stating that my intentions were pure isn’t good enough.
Likewise, you can’t claim your intent is to honor and respect a group, and then ignore the wishes of that group as regards your method of honoring them. Continuing to “honor” a group in such a way is in fact the opposite of honoring them.
By clinging to a mascot that is overwhelmingly judged to be a stereotypical, racial epithet, the ownership of the Washington Redskins deserves nothing less than disapprobation and scorn, and the fans who blindly support this illogical rhetoric are showing the highest disrespect for the people they say they wish to honor.
There are examples of teams and tribes working together (e.g., the Utes, Seminoles, and Arapahoe Warriors), but in the end, white society’s desire to “honor” the natives of this continent may have to go unfulfilled, especially if we insist on dishonoring them with our chosen “honors.”
For more information, check out Change the Mascot. They have a list of groups, organizations, and individuals who support this change. They also have a chronology of Indian-stereotyped mascot/team name changes that have been made over the decades.