Rick Reilly wrote about the Washington Redskins for ESPN. While he raises a relevant point about Native Americans’ right to give voice to their own culture, he misses the pivotal point. This controversy is not about how many Native Americans are directly offended. It is about mainstream, white culture and misappropriation.
Reilly ridicules Christine Brennan and Peter King, noted white people, for taking stands on this issue.
I mean, when media stars like USA Today’s Christine Brennan, a white woman from Ohio, and Peter King, a white man from Massachusetts, have jumped on a people’s cause, there’s no going back.
We could pick line by line through the column. Point out the ESPN columnist made no effort to address Native Americans who disagree with him. But the major issue is Reilly contends this controversy has little to do with the mainstream, white community. It has everything to do with it.
White America’s treatment of the aboriginal people of this continent is an indelible stain. Forced removals at gun point. Both active and passive genocide. All for the pursuit of happiness, in the form of fertile and later irrigable farmland. Once the land was claimed, whites enacted a further century of cultural appropriation ad absurdum, glossing over the blood and tears with a holiday and a ridiculous story about Pilgrims.
This latter period overlapped with the naming of professional sports teams. It endowed us with Braves, Indians, Chiefs and, yes, Redskins. Not to mention headdresses, caricatures and all manner of odious imagery.
Many people root for these teams. Most are good people who intend no malice. Many Native Americans, we suspect, go about their day unmindful of a certain NFL franchise. That is not the issue. This is about cultural appropriation by a largely white institution and what is sensitive, tasteful and for the greater good.
I’m a white man from Michigan. I think the NFL team located in Washington should change its name. I have written about this before. What troubles me is not the name itself, but how much I’m not troubled by it. “Redskins” has become flat and ubiquitous. I’ve heard it for 25 years. Many have heard it for far more. Most are unaffected. That’s a problem.
Language is powerful, on both a direct and a subliminal level. When I was a kid, it was common on the playground to call something “gay,” to call someone a “f—-t” and to play “smear the queer.” We weren’t consciously being homophobic – we didn’t even know what that meant – but the mere presence of those words bred prejudice.
Overt racism is the plant. Language and imagery, broadly ingrained or not, are the roots. Both need to be removed. This is about education and ideas, not tallying numbers of people who feel affronted.
Black performing artists have appropriated racial terminology and stereotypes through music. Some may debate whether that is helpful or harmful. But the performers have a right to do so. White people using the n-word and Miley Cyrus co-opting black women’s bodies are different questions.
Notre Dame is a university, started and populated by Irish Catholics. If the school wishes to embrace a pejorative stereotype about pugnacious Irishmen as a point of pride, all power to them. Another school naming itself the “Ginger Bastards” and having some asshole in a red wig and a leprechaun suit with a pot of gold would be an issue.
If, as Reilly suggests, some predominately Native American schools view “Redskins” as a point of pride and wish to continue using it, that is fine. That’s different from an NFL franchise, owned by a white man and catering to a largely non-Native American audience, appropriating that culture and distorting it into a crude caricature.
We know what “Redskins” refers to. The team’s logo makes no effort to obfuscate that. This is not a question of who or how many the team is offending. This is a broader question of whether this brand of terminology and imagery should remain within the public discourse. Increasing numbers of Americans, media members and fans of the team itself believe it should not. Some have become more proactive about it.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]