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Some [Red] Skin in the Game

I had an entirely different post for today in the hopper as recently as this past Monday, but I got engaged (sucked into?) a Facebook debate (as I am wont to do (un)fortunately) regarding the name of the renowned National Football League team Washington Redskins and the recent controversy – or at least media controversy – over that name.  I have never really thought much of the debate in the past, mainly because I do not really self-identify as a Native American and/or American Indian, but the aforesaid Facebook debate made me take a little more time to consider the issue.

Now, it seems obvious to me, a veritable so-called W.A.S.P., that the term “redskin” could not be translated to other races.  For example, I could never imagine a team called “the blackskins”; so that begs the question as to whether “redskin” has the same pejorative power as, say, calling a team or a person a “blackskin.”  

Now, I am generally of the belief that people should try to be compassionate and kind to others and do their best to “treat others as they wish to be treated.”  I also think this is consistent with Christian teaching.  So, in that spirit, if someone (e.g.: an American Indian) feels that a term is offensive or an epithet against him, then maybe we ought to reconsider using the term even if the user of the term, say the W.A.S.P. writing this blog, does not see what the big deal is.  It is the nice thing – and other-person-centric thing – to do.

When it comes to potentially “racial” team names, I think some close analysis needs to be done.  So, for example, is “Redskins” the same as “the Braves”, which is a term describing Native American warriors?  I don’t think so, otherwise we would consider other team names, like the Vikings, Spartans, or, indeed, the Warriors as also racial.  In the same way, is a nationality also racial?  For example, “the Seminoles”  and “the Blackhawks” are team names which are, of course, Indian nations but are not necessarily representative of the Native Americans as a race; however, this seems to be balanced by, perhaps most famously, the Fighting Irish, a nation of white people but not necessarily representative of the white race.  In fact, in my view, Fighting Irish seems terribly offensive as it highlights an Irish stereotype, but there seems to be no out cry for that team name to change at this time.  What about “the Chiefs”?  This seems to represent an office and not a race, much like a team name like “the Senators.”  What about team names like “the Aztecs”, who where an ancient Native American civilization?  This sort of name seems balanced by a team name like “the Celtics” who where an ancient white (European) civilization.

This leads us to the worst offender, in my view, which would be teams like the Cleveland Indians, with its big goofy Indian mascot and his absurd name “Chief Wahoo”.  The team name seems to directly implicate the entire race of Native Americans.  I could not imagine a similar team name for other races being acceptable.  Could you imagine a team like, say, the Cleveland Asians?  How about Cleveland Africans?  Or Cleveland Caucasians?  What sort of racially offensive mascots would these teams have?  I am sure you can imagine what they could be and how offensive they could be; perhaps similar to that of the existing Chief Wahoo?

Of course, when it comes to something like a team name, the issue involves not just a person but an entire ethnic group, which consists of various individuals who have various feelings toward things like a team name like “Redskins.”  How many offended American Indians are enough of a critical mass to make it appropriate to change the name of the team?  I do not necessarily have the answer to that.

Perhaps that is the difference between “blackskins” and “redskins” and some of the other names listed above  A team name like “the blackskins” would be nearly universally reviled by black people whereas Native Americans, as a whole, seem rather ambivalent on the name “Redskins.  Apparently, the name was to honor Washington’s first NFL football coach who self-identified as having Indian heritage.  Also, as it turns out, many sports teams in areas primarily populated by Indians have the name “Redskins” and they use the name with pride.  Some say the term “redskin” started its life as an epithet against Indians, yet it is reported that something like 90% of Indians do not think the term is offensive and many embrace it.  So, I suppose, there is simply not a critical mass of Indians opposed to the name to make it worthwhile changing it; indeed it could be argued that Indians do not just “not oppose” the name, but embrace it with pride.

Who am I, this W.A.S.P. from Philadelphia, to tell 90% Native Americans that they should be offended by something?  If they are offended, I am sure they will be able to say something and, thus far, only a very small percentage has said something.  Maybe then something will be done; it does not seem anything will be done now.  To bring it back to the point of this blog, the law, it is for this reason I think all of the ovations and clamoring for the government to pass a law regarding the Redskins’ name to be absurd and entirely overreaching.  First, I question the authority and jurisdiction of the government to do that and, second, I simply do not think there is a critical mass of people to warrant such a move.  The fact is, no matter what someone does or says, it is likely that someone will be offended.  That simply cannot reasonably be avoided and is an unfortunate part of life both for the offender and offendee.  Until there is a critical mass of people opposed to the name to warrant a change, I think the only thing we should do is listen to those offended and provide a simple but sincere apology.

For more on this issue check out this fantastic article from EPSN “Have the People Spoken?”  Also, here is an interesting story of one Indian tribe’s advocacy of changing the Redskins’ name: “Oneida Indian Nation Plans Symposium on ‘Redskins’ Name“.  Finally, if you have a sense of humor, but are not easily offended, check out the Onion’s take with their list of Most Offensive Team Names.

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