I haven’t started an essay, much less an article beginning with the words, “The dictionary defines”, since high school. So thank you Readzone, Dan Snyder, and supporters of the R-word for making me do what I am about to do.
The dictionary (Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Oxford, and World English) defines the term, R*dskins as a “North American Indian”, but don’t start celebrating or trying to “honor” Natives by doing war whoops, tomahawk chops, or putting on your offensive, fake, dollar store regalia and dancing around like idiots just yet. In addition to defining the term as a Native American, they also add that the term is “offensive”, “taboo”, “disparaging”, dated, and old-fashioned. So, it’s not just the “self-righteousness” or “indignance” of “present-day” advocates trying to redefine the term or to “look for a reason to be offended”. It is what it is by its very definition, the same way the N-word is what it is, or any other term that is used to describe a person of color in a disparaging manner.
There are some people, including Natives, who do not see it as a racial slur. As we’ve heard many times from Dan Snyder and his supporters, it’s “tradition”, it’s a “Badge of Honor”, it’s a “sign of respect”, followed by the quoting of various and questionable polls as if that changes what the term stands for, as if it changes the foundation of racist ideology that it promotes. There’s no trying to “take it back” like Randall, from Kevin Smith’s Clerks2, tried to do with “Porchmonkey” because HE did not see it as being a racial slur.
Dan Snyder and supporters of the R*dskin moniker are the poster children for what happens when racism becomes so universal and ingrained into the values of our society that it becomes tradition, that it becomes invisible and normal. This is why supporters of the dreaded R*dskin moniker and native mascots find it so hard to grasp that the reasons Indigenous people and our allies speak out against the use of a slur as a team name, harmful native stereotypes/imagery and cultural appropriation have very little to do with being “PC”, Liberal, or hating the “white” man. It does have everything to do with breaking down the foundations that allow and promote racism against Native people.
Am I saying that R*dskins fans are racists or that they hate Natives? No.
Honestly, I don’t really think they realize that they are promoting and engaging in behavior that is unacceptable and disrespectful toward indigenous people. They fail to see the wrong in it because “it is tradition” and because they truly believe that Native people should feel honored when fans show up to games dressed in their fake regalia, warpaint, sing “Hail to the R*dskins”, and yell “Scalp ‘Em”. They fail to see the wrong in trying to tell Native people what to believe, what to think and what we should and should not condone. They fail to see the wrong in marginalizing the voices of Native people simply because we are not the “Majority” as the polls show.
Although ESPN’s recent poll showed that 4 in 5 Americans don’t believe the name should be changed, it should be noted that support for keeping the name has decreased from 89% in 1992 to 79% in 2013. As for the Annenberg Election Survey that found 91% of Native Americans do not find the find the name offensive, it should be pointed out that the participants were “self-identified” natives. No one verified whether or not they were actually Native American or the average “But my Great Great Grandma was a Cherokee Princess” faux natives. The Annenberg polled 768 “natives” or rather .05% of the Native population at the time the poll was conducted, so even if they were Native and even if they all said they did not find the name supportive, they do not even come close to representing 91% of the Native Population. The polls themselves should not even be a factor in discussing this issue, as it’s not a popularity contest but rather a matter of doing the right thing and respecting indigenous people as people.
When it comes to talking about the R*dskins name and native mascots, many like William Safire and Brian Mangan somehow think that with the exception of Suzan Harjo that it’s only non-native liberals “tut-tutting about a misperceived slur”. They ignore the work that the National Congress of American Indians, the Oneida Nation, Navajo Nation, EONM, as well as the many other organizations and individual native and non-native advocates have done to eradicate the use of disparaging team names and offensive native mascots/logos. Thanks to the dedication of these organizations and individuals over the last fifty years, 2/3 of all native mascots and logos have been eliminated. According to the NCAI, there are fewer than a 1000 left. How’s that for a little “real-life change?
In his article, The Washington R*dskins Name Change Controversy:Is R*dskins Actually Offensive?, Brian Mangan asks, “But with so few people opposed to the name – what is generating the backlash”? The backlash stems from Natives tired of having to contend with the caricatures and negative stereotypes that create an environment of discrimination. It stems from the way that our culture and our people are treated and the way that our issues are discussed and approached by those outside of our culture.
For example, when writers who support the use of the R-word moniker often use the terms poverty-stricken, vanishing, “clueless about priorities”, and down-trodden as if to say, “Got Poverty? Well, don’t mind our ignorance and support of racist ideology because you’re already a conquered people”. The backlash stems from the way that Dan Snyder treats the very people he wants to “honor” by trying to bribe tribal leaders into supporting him and by dangling much needed resources in front of them in exchange for their silence and support. It stems from the way that R*dskins fans mock indigenous people, our culture and our history. It stems from the desire to keep progressing and moving closer to the end of the acceptance and existence of racism.
As hard as it will be for some to accept, especially Dan Snyder, the name will change because we won’t give up. We won’t stop fighting against the acceptance of a slur that normalizes and promotes racist behavior and attitudes towards indigenous people. It doesn’t matter how many times the same justifications for its continued use are regurgitated again and again because it doesn’t change the fact that it is demeaning to Native people.
There’s no “Taking it Back” or “misperceived understanding of the word”, there is only the willful ignorance of Dan Snyder and his supporters’ misguided attempt to put a game and fandom above human decency. The irony is that their willful ignorance and Dan Snyder’s repeated attempts to bribe tribal leaders just illustrate why the time has come for the name to be changed.
Johnnie Jae is an EONM member and Native Max Magazine’s managing partner
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Editor’s Note: This commentary first appeared in The Good Men Project. Used with permission. All rights apply.