In case you haven’t heard, there’s a football team based in Washington, D.C. called “The Redskins.” You may also have heard that the name is a racial slur. Seriously, it’s a dictionary-defined offensive term.
Recently, the Daily Show did a segment on the issue that collected some of the arguments for keeping the name and revealed some of the fans’ hypocrisy. Let’s take start with a quote from one of them.
If the name is changed, and I have children someday, what will I pass on to them?
How about you pass on your misplaced sense of persecution? Or, you could buy a new shirt with the new logo and pass that down to your kids. Or pass down your love of football and let your kids buy their own merchandise. Really, though, the questions you should be more concerned about is whether you want your kids to have a father who cares more about keeping his sweatshirt up to date than the disenfranchisement of an entire people.
Moving on, here’s a statement from the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder:
You can take things out of context all over the place, but, in this particular case…it’s very obvious that the name really means honor.
Second, let’s take Snyder’s advice and put the term into context. Google has this handy function where they will do a graph showing how much a word was used at various points in history.
As you can see, use of the word redskin started around the 1840s and spiked around 1900. What else was happening in that time frame? Well, the massacre at Wounded Knee happened in 1890. There, the United State’s 7th cavalry regiment indiscriminately killed around 300 men, women, and children on a Lakota reservation.
Also, 1830 was the year of the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears. Between 2,500 and 6,000 people from the Choctaw tribe and around 7,000 from the Cherokee tribe died along that trail. Native Americans were rounded up and forced to travel hundreds of miles from their homes, all on the order of the United States government.
And this trend continued, with the government breaking treaties with Native Americans, taking their land, and relocating them to reservations. Native American children were also taken from their homes to be “re-educated” in government-sponsored schools, a practice that continued through the 1970s.
All the while, people were calling them redskins. It was (and still is) a term intended to dehumanize the “enemy” and make it more acceptable to slaughter them. It certainly does not start meaning honor because you attach it to a football team. Actually, attaching it to football team minimizes the atrocities committed using that word and disrespects the struggles Native Americans still face today.
But my favorite panelist on the Daily Show segment is this lady, Kelli O’Dell:
My favorite thing about her appearance on the show is when she says they should all be talking to the people who are offended. When she was granted her wish and Native Americans were brought in to debate them, she tried to call the cops because she felt “in danger” from…imminent empathy, I guess? Then she and the rest of the panelists went to the Washington Post to complain about the whole thing, where she said that she was “going to be defamed” because her own words had been recorded on video. The horror!
See, she wants the indigenous people to stop being so “sensitive” about a pervasive racial slur, yet she feels physically threatened when someone hurts her precious feelings.
Meanwhile, those same Native American panelists went to a tailgate as part of the Daily Show segment. There, they had smoke blown in their faces, people shouting “Thanks for letting us use your name, boy,” and one woman saying “I will cut you” because one of the panelists wore a satirical shirt with the word “Caucasians” on it. Yet they did not try to call the cops. Who’s too sensitive again?
The bottom line is that the words we use matter. Language is how we frame ideas, how we categorize people (for good or ill), and it pervades every facet of our lives. A word used to oppress and dehumanize a people continues to have that same power even decades later, and to treat the word as acceptable is the same as finding the dehumanization acceptable.
But more than that, this is also about compassion. When a persecuted, marginalized group of people stand up and say that they are further marginalized by a certain word or action, we should listen to them. We should care about that and try to change it. If we don’t, if we can’t even do that one small thing, then how can we tackle any of the bigger issues of racism in our society? Can we even start to have the bigger conversations if we can’t even consider changing the name of a football team? Plus, we absolutely cannot say we are working towards an equal society while reducing an entire race of people to a mascot, despite their vehement objections.