Cult of Outrage: Washington Redskins
We live in rapidly changing times, and because some people are slower to evolve than others, public figures and private citizens alike are being publicly shamed on the internet for espousing socially distasteful ideas. Even if it was years ago. Even if it was a childish joke. Thus, when posed with an actual instance of shame-worthy racism, like the debate surrounding the Washington Redskins, it can get caught up in the other noise.
Given my past writing on the subject, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I would classify this situation as political correctness run amok. However, this is a clear-cut case of corporate-sanctioned discrimination, especially since the effort to change the name was started by Native Americans themselves and not some White Knights (pardon the pun). While the recent media attention is new, this fight has been happening for 13 years.
One of the defenses in keeping the name is that the term was used as an honorific, which may even have been true at the time for those who chose it. For our purposes, whether it was or not is wholly irrelevant. For an organization like the NFL to ignore the history of the word and the complaints of the community who bore the suffering related to it is simply unconscionable.
According to The Washington Post, the term “redskin” can be traced back to the earliest days of colonial history. While it was used in writings from the time by both colonists and Native Americans themselves, its actual origin was the slave trade. University of Connecticut historian Nancy Shoemaker told The Post, “It is slavery that makes color seem to be a way to organize people.”
To draw a comparison of usage, “redskin” shares some similarities with “negro,” in that it was once a “proper” term to denote a people but is not any more. However, unlike other such terms, redskin is also closely associated with the Native American genocide. In order to claim bounties on them, people would present proof. “Instead of a body,” Shoemaker said, “they accepted the ‘redskin’ or the genitalia, or scalps.”
The ruling by the U.S. Patent Office to nullify six of the team’s trademarks is a big step, but largely a symbolic one. The team’s logo is not affected and, because the appeal can take years, they trademarks are still technically in effect.
What is most egregious about this is that the NFL wouldn’t dare to defy any other ethnic group a grievance of this magnitude. Of course, short of Notre Dame’s “The Fighting Irish,” no other group is used as a mascot of a sports franchise.
Despite how our politics play out, if America has a national religion it is professional sports. And just like all clergy, the NFL only draws its power from the congregation. To truly affect the change, there must be more outreach to the fans. If the group of Native Americans leading the effort to change the name got simply the season ticket holders and luxury box owners on their side, the name would change this afternoon.
Photo by Mike Licht via Flickr Creative Commons