Is “Redskins” a Racial Slur, or Honor?

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 3.07.11 PMThe NFL team in America’s capital is called the Washington “Redskins.” Is that a racial slur against Native Americans? Recent conversations in this heated debate revolve largely around the moral ideal of honor. Here’s the story.

Native American leaders have argued the “R-word” is a racial slur. Even President Obama and dozens of U.S. Senators have publicly called for a name change. But the team’s owner and the NFL commissioner have so far refused, as the Redskins brand is worth millions and millions of dollars (see 2-minute video here).

Last week, a national poll from the Washington Post found 9 out of 10 Native Americans are not offended by the Washington Redskins name. Amidst the flurry of ensuing public comments—the topic of honor is a common motif. Here are some quotes.

“Redskins” Does Not Honor

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 2.00.31 PM “The name has never been consciously an ‘honor’ for actual Native people.”

“The patronizing non-Native response continues centuries of colonial paternalism in which non-Natives apparently know what’s best for us.”

 “It’s time we find a true mascot that uplifts…”

“To me it is personally offensive to see non-Natives making a mockery of our cultural items — feathers are sacred gifts that we have a lot of respect and honor towards.”

“Redskins” Does Honor

The team owner Daniel Snyder claims the very opposite. “The Washington Redskins team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride.”

“It is a nickname for a fierce warrior. I don’t see how that’s offensive. Redskin denotes someone as formidable, to be respected and even feared.”

“People no longer associate it with a derogatory word but rather the football team. So in a sense, the Washington Redskins has helped rebrand an offensive term and fight racism.”

The Question?

Does “Redskins” dishonor or honor Native Americans? How does the notion of “honor” help resolve a public debate with various stakeholders? Here are three things to consider.

  1. Assumption of Honor. I find it interesting how both sides simply assume “honor” should be the utmost moral virtue in this extra-legal conversation. Having honor on your side puts you on the higher moral ground. But expecting a 9 billion dollar entertainment industry—the N.F.L.—to act on the basis of honor may be wishful thinking. They are a business making business decisions, so don’t expect public policy. If they willing inflict their employees to sustained brain damage for corporate profits, I don’t think race-based microaggressions will impact business decisions. Also, they did not pick “Redskins” because that would be the most honoring, but are using honor to ex post facto justify the team mascot. But nevertheless, their main argument is one of “honor.”
  2. Names Imply Status. The conversation is an interesting reminder about social meaning of names. They are not neutral designations, but attribute identity and status. Your personal name situations you into a specific community—e.g. Steve Jones or Vladimir Petrovich. A group label such as “Gentile” in the Bible is not harmless, as it subtly implies outsider, unclean, other, rejected. Names imply status and carry power.
  3. Context Matters. A name means different things in different contexts. The voices in this debate locate the term in various contexts for defining “Redskin.”
  • The original use by Native Americans for themselves. (neutral)
  • Later uses historical usages of the word at racial epithets against Native Americans. (negative)
  • The negative childhood experiences of Native Americans commenting now. (negative)
  • Contemporary football games of Redskins fans. (positive)

Your comments on the matter? As always, keep them constructive…and honoring.

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2 Comments on “Is “Redskins” a Racial Slur, or Honor?

  1. I’ve always been a bit disturbed myself with the title of the team, even though I am non-native. But I am more bothered by the tomahawk chop they use. That to me is quite the stereotype of a scalping Indian, which is an historically inaccurate portrayal. That really bothers me and I cringe when I see it. Yet the logo of the Indian is one of a strong, proud man. And I’m not sure the team would pick a name with the intent of offending or mocking. They would want one that depicts the qualities of their team…strength, perseverance, pride, determination. Yet, at the same time, knowing the history behind white aggression and the evils perpetrated against the Native Americans, evils that stripped them of their honor, strength and culture, does anyone have the right to claim a symbol of the very qualities that were stolen from them? On the flip side, we are a nation of self indulgent, “my rights come first” people who are ready to sue every time someone offends us. Multi millions are spent every year on such offenses. We preach tolerance as long as it doesn’t affect us personally. Not an easy answer either way.

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