As you probably know, the Washington Redskins have been at the center of a controversy over their name. Many people say that the name is offensive but the owner of the team, Daniel Snyder, refuses to change the name. I’ve been thinking about the issue. It occurs to me that the term “redskin” is like one of my favorite joke words, “darky.” The word “darky” was once a deeply offensive term but no one uses it as an insult anymore. So I use it to lampoon modern people, calling them both racist and stuck in the past at the same time.
I think the same thing is going on with “redskin.” It isn’t a term that people use to insult Native Americans anymore. But it used to be, and even in my lifetime. I think this clarifies the issue. No one would think it was alright to have a football team named the Washington Darkies. But people continue to try to make the case for Redskins.
Rick Reilly wrote a curious article over at ESPN, Have the People Spoken? It is one of those Thomas Friedman kind of columns, “I talked to a cab driver and he agrees with me so that settles it!” In Reilly’s case, he talked to a Native American (his father-in-law, Bob Burns) and he didn’t have a problem with the name. Even worse, he talked to people at a couple from high schools with the redskins name that are majority Native American. And they said the kids loved the name. Case closed!
I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I suspect this is what I refer to as “Why does mom get to call you that?” Conservatives often get upset that minority groups get to use derogatory terms for themselves that whites cannot use. But that’s just the way it is. And if the kids at Wellpinit High School, with its 91.2% Native American student body, like the name “Redskins” it might be because of its offensiveness, not despite it.
On Friday, Dave Zirin reported on another problem with Reilly’s article, Blackfeet Elder Refuses to Be Son-in-Law Rick Reilly’s “Uncle Tom.” It seems that his father-in-law didn’t say what Reilly thought he said. He does find the redskins name offensive. Of course, we didn’t need to get confirmation of that. The whole argument is just so much, “All Indians walk in single file! At least the only one I ever saw did.”
Zirin focuses on how those who want to protect the name seem to hear only what they want to hear. I’m sure the Redskins name’s days are numbered. But it brings up a broader issue in team naming: is it really okay to have any team names that refer to Native Americans in a league that is overwhelmingly owned by white men? These are men who continue to prosper because of white privilege and the large scale theft and genocide of the Native Americans who made the mistake of once owning this land. I’m not at all sure it is acceptable to even have names like “Indians,” much less what seems to me to be the even more offensive “Cherokees.” Time will work this out I suppose.
I mentioned the Cherokees because based upon my (admittedly limited) knowledge, no other tribe worked so hard to get along with the United States government and do things according to their social norms. The Cherokee Nation repeatedly took different parts of the US government to court. This happened most notably in Worcester v. Georgia where the Supreme Court found more or less that tribes were independent and that Georgia couldn’t pass laws limiting how the Nation ruled its own land. President Jackson notably refused to enforce the ruling. The point is that all the talk of the rule of law and all that stuff is bullshit. What was done to the Native peoples was racism pure and simple.