The Name Game

People of Color Should Sympathize With Native Americans

Last week, Washington football team owner Jack Kent Cooke died. At 85 years old, he had been owner for over 20 years and, recently, after years of failed attempts, struck a deal to build a new stadium in Prince George's County, Maryland. Now fans, players and newscasters mourn his death. But as sad as it is when anyone dies, I hope that in some way his death will lead to another passing: the death of the name "Redskins."

Imagine that you're passing through the nation's capital and turn on the local sports radio station to hear blaring, "Hail to the Niggers! Hail victory!" What would you do? While some people in America would undoubtedly welcome this racist assault on the senses, I think that many people, especially African-Americans, would nearly die from the shock. All sorts of organizations would have massive protests and boycotts assembled within hours. The bloodthirsty media (that's us), always in search of conflict, would find somebody's house to stake out, and, eventually, due to the mounting pressure from plebs and politicians alike, the lyrics of the song would be changed.

But the sad fact is that you don't have to imagine it at all, for every football season in Washington brings the image of the Redskins to the fore, accompanied by song, mascot and an entire city's open-armed embrace of bigotry.

Over the past ten years there have been numerous efforts across the country by Native Americans to change the offensive names of many professional and school sports teams. In 1994, a conference of minority journalists, titled UNITY '94, passed a resolution calling for news organizations to "officially discontinue the use of Native American and other culturally offensive nicknames, logos and mascots related to professional, college, high school and amateur sports teams."

The controversy over baseball's Atlanta Braves brought this movement to national attention with the team's World Series appearance earlier this decade. But, year after year, two main excuses are offered by team owners, fans and players in defense of continuing the racist tradition.

The first is that there are other cultural mascots such as the Vikings, Pirates and Cowboys, and no one is offended by them. This comparison ignores the history of murder and oppression that has been perpetrated upon Native Americans and the widespread white supremacy that enables such mistreatment to continue to this day.

Mascots such as the Cowboys are a genuine celebration of a group of people, and the Dallas Cowboys are often affectionately referred to as America's Team. However, the demeaning and often blasphemous displays such as "war dances," "scalpings" and the "tomahawk chop" that go along with many of the teams named after Native Americans are anything but celebratory.

They serve only to spread the myth of an uncivilized group of people dancing wildly and constantly engaging in war. Ironically, this image more appropriately fits the history of many of the Europeans who nearly wiped out the Native American population.

The second justification offered is that the terms and mascots really are inoffensive. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the ongoing debate because it merely serves to continue the condescension and disrespect endured by all people of color. This paternalistic attitude has at its roots the idea that "You people don't know what you're talking about," and the further insult, "You do not even know your own emotions."

Just to set the record straight, people do find the term "redskin" offensive. If someone says he or she is offended, that should be the end of the discussion. Furthermore, when thousands of people express their pain and hurt at the use of a symbol, there should be no need for them to validate their feelings. (The use of the Confederate flag and its offensiveness to African-Americans offers us another recent example).

Instead, proponents of the offensive names deny the very existence of other people's feelings. By refusing to change these names, they are refusing to acknowledge the sincere feelings of others and consequently their worth as human beings. They are saying, in effect, "You are not important."

However, what I find most disturbing about the continued use of these names and mascots is that my fellow people of color defend them as heartily as white people. One would think that having lived through (and still living in) an environment in which every name but our own was hurled at us and used to denigrate us, we would empathize with Native Americans in a similar circumstance. But, instead we offer the same weak arguments used by Cooke.

The football players on the Washington team are predominantly African-American. Washington, D.C. is predominantly African-American. Its city council is predominantly African-American. Yet, change the team's name to the Washington Darkies and just sit back and watch the riots flare up. Everyone from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan would find himself between a microphone, placard and television camera screaming racism.

I find the hypocrisy itself more offensive than the similarly-vulgar names because we, as blacks, refuse to remember how it feels to be on the receiving end. We refuse to put ourselves in the other person's shoes--shoes comparable to those about which we constantly complain.

Baratunde R. Thurston '99 is a Crimson editor living in Lowell House.