Happy Columbus Day, America. We couldn’t have picked a better time to celebrate the “discovery” of our great nation than in the midst of a debate over how we’ve appropriated its native culture.
The question of whether the time has come to abandon the embarrassingly dated, racially offensive name of the Washington Redskins has come up again and again in recent years. But this season, the conversation has become strenuously vocal — especially since team owner Daniel Snyder grandly proclaimed earlier this year, “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season…. We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” In a letter to Snyder and to NFL commissioner Roger Godel last May, ten members of Congress urged the team to change the name, calling it “a derogatory slur.”
And now, with the season in full swing, the debate has become even more heated. During the halftime of the “Sunday Night Football” game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, Bob Costas graciously acknowledged that most of the defenders of the name mean no overt disrespect. But, he asked, “Think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.” And earlier this month, when the Associated Press asked the president about the controversy, Barack Obama replied that if a name was “offending a sizable group of people,” then he would “think about changing it.” He added, “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
Yet the team is tenaciously sticking with its name and its Native American imagery. In a statement, team attorney Lanny J. Davis declared that “9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name ‘the Washington Redskins,’” and that the name represents “our history and legacy and tradition.” And last week, Snyder sent a letter to fans saying he will “continue to listen and learn,” but that the 81 year-old team represents “the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.” Dan Snyder, by the way, is a man who you’d think would be more attuned to the idea that what is perhaps not intended as racist might be perceived that way by others. When, three years ago, the Washington City Paper depicted him in a “cranky Redskin fans” piece with devil horns, he said he’d been “vilified by an anti-Semitic caricature.”
Fox, unsurprisingly, has compared the controversy – and the president’s comments — to “those waterskiing squirrels you see at the end of local news,” a “light” throwaway story. CNN has awkwardly noted that the controversy highlights the “enduring uneasiness between Indians and mainstream society.” And the AP has explained that there’s “no consensus” among Indians about the name and that “The term is used affectionately by some natives, similar to the way the N-word is used by some African-Americans.” That’s funny, because I’ve yet to hear of a major league sports franchise called the New York N-Words.
To recap: Dan Snyder defends the use of the Redskins name because he knows that all indigenous nations are the same, with their “values” and “rich history.” But the AP has broken the exciting news that all Native Americans do not in fact have the same ideals or opinions. What’s certain, however, is that CNN knows they’re not “mainstream” Americans. And this is why maybe we need to keep talking about these things.
“Tradition” is a lousy reason to stick with anything that is no longer relevant or appropriate. “Tradition” is the excuse offered for refusing to support marriage equality or keeping women out of all-male venues or thinking it’s quaint to hire people to dress up to recreate the slavery era. Shrugging and saying, Hey, even Native Americans don’t care! isn’t an adequate response. There’s nothing noble about a bunch of white guys deciding what is or is not respectful to another culture. All you have to do is look at the word and ask yourself if you would ever call another human being that to his face, and the case should be closed. It’s just a name, but names matter. And while racism may be an enduring American tradition, it’s one we don’t need on the field.