The Redskins and Their “N-Word” Problem

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The Redskins are more than just a storied franchise, rich with history and tradition (five Super Bowl appearances, three Lombardi trophies, The Hogs, The Diesel, Fun Bunch, Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, etc). The Redskins are more than the 4th most valuable sports franchise in the world (Not just the city, THE WORLD, Craig!). The Redskins are more than the team that I grew up rooting for as a child and the team I follow with an unwavering passion.

The Redskins are offensive. At least — according to some people — their name is offensive.

The decades-long backlash at the team’s name has come back to light after recent remarks from DC mayor Vincent Gray on what would have to happen if the Redskins were to move from their home stadium in Landover, MD to one within DC proper. “I think that if they get serious with the team coming back to Washington, there’s no doubt there’s going to have to be a discussion about [changing the name],” Gray said. The name, which dates back to 1933 when the team was located in Boston and was trademarked in 1967, caused enough outrage that in 1992 a group of Native Americans filed suit in federal court (Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc.) to have the name lose its federal trademark status. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case stating that the group had waited too long to challenge the trademark. Federal intervention be damned, the debate marches on.

Supporters tout the name as celebrating Native American pride and honor. It is said that the team was named the Redskins in honor of their head coach William Henry Dietz who claimed to be part Sioux. Ives Goddard, curator emeritus in the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, published a research article in the detailing the origin of the term “redskin”. His findings show that the term was actually used first by Native Americans themselves to distinguish themselves from their white colonial visitors. Only later did the term become corrupted.

“[The] use of redskin as a Native American in-group term was entirely authentic, reflecting both the accurate perception of the Indian self-image and the evolving respect among whites for the Indians’ distinct cultural perspective, whatever its prospects. The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times.”

Detractors insist that the name only highlights the blood-soaked horrors of Manifest Destiny. Whether the word came from amicable or hostile beginnings, it cannot be denied that, for a long time, Native Americans were demeaned and the term “redskin” was no longer a honorable title. Many people compare it to the use of the word “nigger”. Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and one of the plaintiffs in Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc., wrote:

“Once you’ve been stung by that word, you never, ever forget it or the venom of each modifier, most commonly ‘dirty,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid.’ […] No Native person who has been called the R-word has ever said: “Wow, they must think I’m a football player or a sport mascot or a person covered in red paint for war.” It has always been a fighting word and has never been a compliment.”

As a black man who must deal with the past (and present) crimes of the word “nigger”, it would be ignorant of me to simply brush this aside without trying to put myself in the shoes of a Native American. But what shoe is that? Native American activists, like Suzan Shown Harjo, seem to be adamant in their battle against the term. However, a Sports Illustrated poll in 2002 found the opposite to be true among the general Native American population:

“Asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81% of Native American respondents said no. As for pro sports, 83% of Native American respondents said teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters and symbols.”

This is an interesting issue, no doubt, and one that I feel very torn by. I’ve mainly been a supporter of keeping the name, but I can admit that it’s for purely selfish reasons. Why would I want the team that I grew up with and invested so much in to change their name? The term “Redskins” isn’t derogatory to me. I feel pride when I hear it. Joy. Honor. I am a Redskin and I want my kids to be Redskins too. It’s me. I feel ownership of that name. Wait, can I really claim that it’s my word? I want to, but I don’t think I can. Ultimately, it’s a word with a dark past that I never experienced. I don’t know what the right choice is in this debate, but I’ll never stop supporting my team. Hail to the R-words.

-TDA

14 thoughts on “The Redskins and Their “N-Word” Problem

  1. welcome back!!!!! see?? i knew you could do it :)

    great post. i too am torn. my dad and brother ate constantlu reminding me how racist tr R-word is and how disgraceful it is that the team keeps the name. my brothrt argued fans should boycott the org to get the name changed – can you tell hes a radical?? smh

    all that to say – i dont like the name and id support a name change. butat what point are you being offensive and when are you bein oberly sensitive?? im not sure

    • The fact that there seems to be enough Native Americans on both sides of this debate doesn’t make it any easier for me, a person who was never labeled by the word. Does it matter if only a few Native Americans are offended by it? Is there a quorum that needs to be reached? Can someone even be overly sensitive to a word that is KNOWN to have been used as a racial slur?

  2. This murky. The college football teams I pull for (Bama and S. Carolina) have uber-racist pasts and as a black dude it is something you have to reconcile from time to time. It’s a weird place to find yourself in.

    I’d go apesh+t if team was named the Mephis Mooncrickets or something. I know a lot of colleges got passes on their Native American based names b/c they used the actual names of tribes (Seminoles, Sioux, etc.) But I can see how they feel about names like the Redskins. (I wonder how N. Americans feel about the army naming helicopters after tribes?)

    Things just get weird when sports and race intersect.

    • I know about reconciling your team’s racist past. The Redskins were the last team in the NFL to integrate thanks to our racist owner at the time. The same owner who changed the name to the Redskins. I know, red flag. It’s illogical to think he’d name his team after a group of people he hated or thought little of, but it doesn’t mean the name isn’t derogatory.

      Changing the Redskins to a tribe name, just “Skins”, or something Native American-esque (e.g. Warriors) has been throw around.

  3. first they took our bullets and now they want to take our redskins. i’m also torn by the thought of changing our team’s name. i mean i’m not any parts native american and my people didn’t succumb to slaughter on the frontier or had to walk the trail of tears so who am i to say its not offensive. if there were a team called the Birmingham Africans i’m sure i’d be on the front lines of getting that name changed. i still hope the redskins do get to keep our name. we have a lot of history and the name is part of that (although all our history isn’t that great. we were the last team in the nfl to integrate).

  4. hmmmm….. This is an interesting debate. I personally find it demeaning for any organization to have Native American mascots. It mocks a nationality and culture. People would find it to be just as demeaning to have a team called the North Carolina Crackers, or the Houston Hillbillies, or New England Negroes (I had to actually put those in writing because of how ridiculous they sound). Shouldn’t a name like the Redskins sound just as insulting to us? Or is it ok because we’ve had it as part of a sports culture for so long? And if the NFL name must change, should high schools and universities follow suit? Is tradition more important than being politically correct?

    People can say we’ve had things this way for “so long”, but that doesn’t make it right. There are plenty of examples of long-term disrespectful behavior that America has had to rectify, and I think this is another to add to the list.

    • There’s no sidestepping the history of the term. It’s not pretty. And I can’t argue with people who bring up hypothetical examples of teams with other racially insensitive names. The name is attached to the team’s, my team’s, history. This feeling of ownership and pride over the name, whether misguided or not, is what keeps me from fully supporting a name change. Ultimately, I’m a hypocrite.

      We also won’t get into the fact that a name change means billions of dollars lost having to rebuild the team’s brand. Not something that affects my decision, but something that will make this a very hard fight to win.

  5. At least you acknowledge that you’re a hypocrite. That’s more than most! The reason the name hasn’t been changed is because Native Americans are too small of a group with too little power. They have long since been forgotten, and no media outlet has enough interest in the story to keep it running. If CNN or *gasp* Fox made it their priority to run stories that advocate a name change, it would probably happen.

  6. Well, no kidding you don’t care if “Redskins” is a derogatory name, you aren’t an American Indian. If the team had a name that was pointed in the ‘black’ direction, you would have a different train of thought.

    • Thanks for the comment. I haven’t been on the blog in a while so I realize this is late. I’m sorry that my post made you think I don’t care if “Redskins” is a derogatory word. I do care, but can admit my own hypocrisy and bias because it’s a word that I grew up with that I was proud of. Since writing this post, I’ve shifted toward being a larger supporter of the name change. It isn’t my place to define the word as offensive or not and if it is offensive it should be changed. I won’t lie, I still use the name when referring to the team. However, I’m in support of changing the name. You might think that it’s contradictory to support a change but still use the name and I wouldn’t argue with that. I can still admit my own hypocrisy. I just hope that all parties come to an agreement sooner rather than later.

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