The Washington R-words and the Tyranny of Racist Tradition

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Washington’s NFL team is once again at the center of racial controversy in sports. (Image source: http://www.onlyagame.wbur.org)

By NAVID FARNIA

In November 1996, at a public hearing to determine the fate of Wichita (Kansas) North High School’s mascot, Clem Ironwing, a Sioux elder, was given three short minutes to speak his opinion on the issue.  He used the opportunity to say the following:

The word Redskin was taught to me at a very young age, and this is the meaning it has for me. 

I am a Native American.  I grew up on an Indian reservation.  As a child, the United States Government and the Catholic Church came into our homes, took us away from our families, and forced us into Catholic boarding schools.  There was no choice in this matter, you had to go.  The Catholic Church with the blessings of the United States Government took it upon themselves to determine that we were savages, and needed to be transformed to fit into their society. 

When my hair was cut short by the priests, I was called a “redskin” and a savage.  When I spoke my native tongue, I was beaten and called “redskin.”  When I tried to follow the spiritual path of my people, I was again beaten and called a “redskin.”  I was told by them to turn my back on the ways of my people, or I would forever be nothing but a dirty “redskin.” 

The only way “redskin” was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner.  It was never, ever, used in a show of respect or kindness.  It was only used to let you know that you were dirty and no good, and to this day still is. 

A long time ago, a group of people who had no knowledge of these facts, and who put no thought into what “redskin” actually meant chose to use this word for their mascot.  A new group of people, now being confronted about it, have somehow decided it is their decision to change the meaning of this word to fit their purposes and agendas, but again have put no thought into its true meaning or what this word means to Native Americans. 

Ironwing’s account did not prove enough for Wichita North to change its name, and the school still has the same mascot today.  Controversy surrounding the word’s use as a team name however, remains alive on both local and national levels.  Most prominently, the NFL’s Washington Redskins have come under increasing scrutiny from Native American communities and other supporters for their stubborn refusal to change their name. 

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, the face of the organization and an emerging popular sports figure, recently commented about the “tyranny of political correctness” on his Twitter account.  Subsequent chatter speculated that he was tweeting about the r-word controversy, which he has not publicly denied.  But perhaps the more fitting description of this debate is how the tyranny of racist tradition so often trumps the feelings of those most affected by racism. 

Even a poll result indicating 79 percent of Americans are not bothered by the name illustrates how racial injustice is so easily ho-hummed aside.  And as for the 79 percent, according to Michael Tomasky, “All it means is that 79 percent of Americans need a history lesson.”  It may demonstrate something else too: that there is an ever-present tyranny of the majority in this country.

Washington team owner Daniel Snyder has defiantly proclaimed, “We’ll never change the name.  It’s that simple.  NEVER – you can use caps.”  NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even came to Snyder’s defense after ten members of the U.S. Congress wrote letters to Snyder, Goodell, FedEx (Washington’s team sponsor) and the other 31 NFL teams, calling to have Washington’s name changed.  In a letter responding to the Congress members, Goodell explains:

The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.  For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.

It is curious that Goodell would feel comfortable to make this statement in light of the letter from Congress, as well as comments like Suzan Shown Harjo’s.  “For most Native Americans, there’s no more offensive name in English.  That non-Native folks think they get to measure or decide what offends us is adding insult to injury,” Harjo has said.  Her comments are noticeably consistent with Ironwing’s. 

Both Goodell and Snyder’s remarks and their complete disregard for Harjo and many others indicate that they live in a whitewashed fantasy world where no Native Americans exist.  The presence of racialized stereotypes in sports imagery is in the same historical lineage as blackface, when white men and women haphazardly and disgustingly portrayed Black people in film, using their privilege to build cinematic fantasies.  Black people did not exist in these worlds in the same way that Native Americans are absent from Goodell and Snyder’s white fantasy.

In other words, only a rich white male privilege of the most extreme degree would psychologically enable Goodell and Snyder to spew such ignorant and insensitive gibberish.  For these men, representation only counts when unoffended Native Americans speak up on the issue.  All other opinions are dismissed.  This is what rich white male privilege does, it attempts to construct fantasy worlds where only they can choose whose opinions count.

Another tactic evident in Goodell’s letter to Congress is the use of “context” in the r-word’s use.  Proponents of keeping the name argue that it is one thing to walk around and use the term as a slur against Native Americans, but when it comes to sports names, the word is not contextually offensive; rather, it is honorific.  In real life, context does not matter.  If the name is offensive in one circumstance to a segment of people, then it is ultimately offensive in all circumstances.  What we can really glean from this situation is the attempt to disguise a case of institutionalized corporate racism as something to be celebrated, even though on an individual basis, it is still a slur.  

The corporate element speaks to another reason observers have given for Snyder’s defiance.  Many in the business world believe the brand helps to make Washington’s franchise one of the most profitable in football (Washington is the NFL’s third most valuable franchise).  However, this contention is just another that masks the political motivations behind those who use it.  Says Allen Adamson, someone who is familiar with brand name changes: “I think in the worst case it would be a break-even over a three-to five-year period.  The financial excuse is not a good excuse.”  Native American activists are even taking the NFL to the courts as a means of minimizing their profits from the brand in order to force a name change. 

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Daniel Snyder and Roger Goodell’s defense of using a slur as Washington’s team name is inevitably related to dollars and cents. (Image source: http://www.bleacherreport.com)

Lost in the excuse-making madness however, is the r-word’s historical connection with genocide and mass violence, a history that would trivialize justifications for its contemporary usage in any context.  Even in this franchise’s specific history – and contrary to Goodell’s propaganda – racism is one of the foundational principles upon which the Washington organization has stood.  Former team owner George Preston Marshall, a staunch segregationist who had a particular nostalgia for the antebellum South (Marshall’s nostalgia would make even Paula Deen cringe), is perhaps the most racist figure in the history of football.  He is the man who changed the franchise’s nickname to the r-word (more on Marshall’s racism can be found here).  Thus, the word’s continued use as a team name – not only for Washington’s NFL team, but also for many high schools around the country – harkens to this racist legacy. 

More importantly, the copious use of stereotypical Native American imagery and the debasement of Native cultures in sports circles perpetuate genocide through symbolic violence.  By not soliciting the widespread dissenting opinions in Native American communities, the implication is that Native Americans are not a substantial enough group to consult in the first place.  As a result, people like Goodell, Snyder and others feel entitled to represent and inevitably, misrepresent Native American views as reflecting their own political and economic agendas.  But as Courtland Milloy states, “The genocide of Native peoples, like America’s other original sin, slavery, cannot be forever masked with caricatures of the dead.”

Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, explains, “I see the name of the team and all of imagery as being a continuation of a process that began a long time ago to define us in a very limited way, as less than human, in order to rationalize the dispossession.  It is a slur, a word that was used to degrade us, hurt our feelings and make us angry.”  Gover’s statement reflects how the term is steeped in a history of power and racial subordination that had very real and concrete consequences, and which manifest to this day.  Contrary to what many apparently believe, the word is not devoid of historical meaning nor has it been reappropriated for positive connotations; rather, the r-word signifies the persistence of an ugly history rooted in dispossession and racial violence.  This is the real tradition of the term.

Moreover, the ways in which Goodell and Snyder have attempted to privilege certain perspectives on the r-word’s use are eerily similar to how the U.S. government historically legitimized or de-legitimized various figures in Native American communities as a means to more easily negotiate the confiscation of their lands.  Donna Akers explains:

…in treaty negotiations with “Indians,” the United States government routinely avoided any confirmation that the persons with whom they were negotiating were the legitimate representatives of the Indigenous government, simply because the United States did not intend to engage in honest negotiations with Indigenous Peoples.  Instead, the goal was to give the appearance of legitimate treaty negotiations.  President Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote to Governor William Henry Harrison, who was busy separating Native tribes throughout the Old Northwest from their lands, that, he was “interested not in the method used to secure large Indian lands but solely in the result.”

The NFL’s tactic of utilizing token complicit Native American opinions to their benefit is not new when located within this tradition of dispossession.  While there is no doubt there are people on both sides of the issue, efforts to legitimize supporters of the team name and marginalize those against it diminish the NFL’s credibility.  Washington’s name controversy should thus, be seen as part of a larger historical context where racist tradition is advantaged over racial justice.

As outrage over Washington’s team name escalates, Snyder is maneuvering to ensure that the brand stays in place.  Just last week, news surfaced that Snyder has hired Frank Luntz to apparently assess whether the team should change its name.  Frank Luntz, the same Republican spin-specialist who was responsible for changing terms like “estate tax” to “death tax” and health care to “government takeover.”  No doubt, Luntz will be tasked with figuring out how to further spin Snyder’s use of a slur into a positive association, something Snyder has been somewhat unsuccessful at thus far.  But the notion that Snyder, Goodell, famed former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann or anyone else can claim the r-word to be honorable, celebrating Native Americans or just anything other than downright racist is mere fantasy, especially for a franchise so mired in a racist past.  The politics of misrepresentation attempt to dispossess Native Americans of their ability to stand up as a group and agitate against racist tradition. 

In the end, the battle over Washington’s team name rages on and those unaware that the r-word offends millions of Native Americans continue to use it freely.  Lastly, those who defend the name are honoring and celebrating racist tradition more than anything else.  In this sense, perhaps the “Washington Racists” would be the more appropriate name for the franchise, given its history, its current and past ownership and the fans and members of the organization who seek to preserve a fundamentally bigoted legacy.  Indeed, “Racists” would be more representative of these people than the other r-word.

 

Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma. 

Follow us on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at overthecolorline@gmail.com

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