'Redskins,' Names and Being Named

Controversy over a team name opens a national dialogue about race, identity and what’s in a name.

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.