by Acasia Olson
Washington D.C.’s NFL team has been in the news recently, and not just because of its current 1 – 4 season record. The controversy and concern surrounding the team’s name has picked up a head of steam. While team owner Dan Snyder refuses to change the name, which many considered offensive and racist, a group of activists, journalists and 10 members of Congress continue to advocate for a new team name and logo. A lot of Washington’s football fans appear to be upset and have taken to the airwaves and opinion columns to express their disappointment concerning the matter. Personally, I don’t see what’s so hard about changing the name. Get creative and try something that’s representative of the District. Hold a name change contest. I vote for the Washington Warriors, the Washington Renegades or something that hints at politics, espionage and an uncontrollable football tour de force on the field. Sure the merchandise change would be costly but the last I heard, team owners make enough money to buy a private island and he’ll get his money back after people purchase the new brand. Surely Dan can afford to change the team’s name.
I rarely listen to sports radio but when I do, I’m always fascinated by the passion and fervor of the radio personality. However, one morning, while listening to a sports radio broadcast, I overheard the host assert that “Natives should take pride in the fact that a Washington football team should want to be known as the “Redskins” a term that symbolizes pride and strength and warriors.” How is the term “Redskin” equal to and as honorable as“Warrior”? If that were the case, why didn’t the original team owners use the term “warrior” instead?
Ummmm….hold that thought.
Interestingly enough, the same people who argue that Natives should be ‘honored and proud’ to have a football team “named after them” are the same people who protest in offense when black people use and ‘reclaim’ the “N” word while prohibiting non-blacks from using it. So what this radio personality and others are saying is that they can call a person whatever they want and if a person protests on the grounds of being offended, this radio personality et al. reserve the right to ignore the offense because not only does he have the ‘right’ to determine the name, but he and his like-minded supporters also determine what is and isn’t offensive. This “I’m ok with people mocking my culture, so why can’t people be okay with me/people mocking theirs,” attitude is arrogant and points to a lack of empathy and acknowledgement of another person’s sufferings.
As a woman of African Descent who has had to navigate her evolving identity, and specifically what race/ethnicity title she should respond to, I consider “Redskins” to be a disrespectful term. Its use is no less vitriolic than being called the “N” word. Would we remain silent and accept a sports team named the Baltimore Blackies, the Detroit Darkies, the Carolina Coloreds with a picture of a black man or African warrior on the helmet? How would people react to a team named the Washington Whities/Rednecks with a white man or woman’s profile as the mascot? There are other examples, but I’ve made my point. These terms and titles reinforce the infamous “othering” and isolation that non-white communities face on a daily basis for being labeled different, inferior and unequal.
The dominant cultural ideology asserts itself onto communities that are not part of or invited into the dominant fold. Europe and European heritage came to be the standard and remain the socially accepted ideal, however that will change as population experts predict a ‘majority minority’ demographic by 2050. At this present moment, the European-American paradigm/perspective is celebrated by the masses as the pride and joy of the U.S. and Western democracy. It is lauded as the strength and backbone of this ‘great nation,’ composed of multiple people of multiple and mixed ethnicities. The unfortunate reality is that many members and proponents of dominant culture, are quick to get offended when called out. True, no one wants to be made to feel wrong, ignorant, or inadequate but we, and specifically enlightened members within the fold of the dominant culture, need to continue to speak up and hold a large full length mirror to our brethren and sistern as well as not ignore and pretend things aren’t as bad as they appears. Just read comment threads on any ‘race-related’ article featured in a newspaper or Facebook post and you’ll see that we have a long way to go before we can begin to call ourselves a post-racial society. It’s not okay to offend people and then attack and further marginalize those who show you your wrongs and it’s not right to displace and shame the people outside the elite fold. Even non-dominant people will do what they can to accommodate and make the dominant culture and population feel comfortable, good even, at the risk of sacrificing themselves and their own.
At the heart of the opposition to the name change is a group of decision makers who have used their wealth and self-appointed power to get whatever they want, even if it results in disrespecting a community of people. Unless it impacts their pockets and wallets, these individuals have little to no regard for the negative impact this or other offensive terms may have on the offended party. Natives have been spit and shat on for centuries and the protestations of the non-native in response to the change of a football team’s name (a football team!) is evidence that this country still views Natives as less than and struggles with mismanaged and screwed up priorities. It’s a football team where not one player is Native. In fact, how many people of Native descent play on any professional sports team? Unfortunately, Natives have endured having their native names changed and Anglicized in boarding schools, have been plagued by disease and rape, have had their lands stripped from them, their culture poached and their identity and recognition (federal versus non-federally recognized tribes) is up for debate. Natives are ignored as humans but sought out as romanticized mythical creatures whose secrets and traditional knowledge are the stuff that generates exploitation in the form of profitable fad movements. Their traditions and cultural norms and customs are being bought and sold for 30 pieces of silver and not one ounce is invested back into their communities.
People can argue all day about the intent and how no one means any harm or offense or how no one intends to disrespect anyone but ‘intent’ and ‘impact’ are two different things. When we offend and disrespect, instead of calling people sensitive social leeches, we need to listen, reflect, apologize, and do better.