Why The Redskins Controversy Should Finally Be Put to Bed

by / 0 Comments / 117 View / December 16, 2014

In comparison with the mantis shrimp, humans are hopelessly blinkered in their perception of color. This lowly crustacean lords over us with a perceptive capacity of sixteen whole colors compared to the puny three that we experience. This myopia may explain why we cling to the colors that we do have- giving them various attributes and associating them with moods, objects and sadly, even people. Fittingly, the controversy over the name of the Washington NFL team the “Redskins” is another damning indictment of American race relations. American society continues to color race relations through the restrictive lens of black, yellow and red- a myopic system that promotes the “othering” of minorities by literally imprinting difference with these colors. This controversy provides America an opportunity to break from this blinkered affliction of promoting cultural appropriation through not only colors but also associating minorities with archaic symbols and imagery. But discourse over this controversy continues to be tainted with same ignorance over the cultural contexts of its biggest stakeholders: the Native American community. Case in point is Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s defense in preserving the Redskins as the team name.

When Mr. Snyder uses skewed public opinion polls as the basis for keeping the name, he ignores the real issue. When he creates the “Washington Redskins Originals Foundation” to donate money to impoverished reservations, he once again misses the point. And when he triumphantly states that the Redskins “epitomizes the noble spirit and fortitude that Native Americans are famous for,” he relegates an entire community to a visual framework that is both disparaging and dehumanizing. Defenders of Dan Snyder point to polls, his donations and the iconic (for the wrong reasons) Redskins imagery as proof of a culturally sensitive owner balancing Native American tradition with that of the franchise’s legacy. This is not what Mr. Snyder is doing.

What Mr. Snyder and his supporters don’t understand is that it is inconsequential whether seven or seventy percent of Native Americans support the use of the Redskins name – it isn’t a matter of majority or minority but of principle. The principle in this case being that, as a non-Native American, Dan Snyder has no stake in the matter, and more importantly, no right to categorize a visual representation of an entire culture, much less to distill it into a caricature that overlooks the historical burden of the term. The term “redskin” references to a glorified form of prize money (in essence a bounty) paid to white settlers who killed Native American tribesmen and exemplifies a period of subjugation, humiliation and ultimately expulsion for Native Americans by predominantly white settlers. Redskins is built on the past, systemic suffering of Native Americans and brandishing it as the logo of high-profile sports team is an egregious affront to Native Americans. It trivializes historical injustice by masquerading as a harmless sports symbol in a supposedly post-racial society.

Furthermore, the Native American community is composed of over five hundred diverse tribes and an outsider, in this case, Dan Snyder, cannot simply distill their traditions into a single image. Defending the Redskins is ultimately a defense for the fetishization of Native Americans because their existence is constructed to ignore their true reality. This occurs when their “condition” is constructed in binary terms; for America they either exist as “noble” adversaries straight out of a Hollywood Western or their poverty defines them to the extent that they have to be rescued by donations from people such as Dan Snyder, exemplifying the “savior complex”. In either case, the true reality of Native Americans in America today is overwrought: we view them either as a fictitious sideshow or as a helpless community-realities that continue to alienate Native Americans as true members of American society. This, ultimately, is where the crux of the Redskins controversy lies and why I have no longer have patience for defense of the Redskins any more.

The name needs to be banned not only because the Redskins is inherently derogatory but also because it has a tangible impact on the real-world perception of Native Americans. The Redskins name operates as a harmful form of cultural appropriation that doesn’t exist in the vacuum of the NFL, but has its roots in confining Native Americans to a reality that is neither true nor respectful. The harm caused by this name smacks of what Edward Said noted about Orientalism as a worldview that reduced natives in colonies to an essential label; in promoting this name, American society is complicit in a reductive approach in viewing Native Americans. Thus, the argument that NFL teams should be afforded different standards of visual representation because they are divorced from reality, falls, because the Redskins is emblematic of the continued commodification of Native Americans in a disparaging manner, It is precisely because the Redskins operates as the symbol of an organization that it codifies a warped representation of Native Americans.

The Redskins name has overstayed its welcome and continued defense of it will only drag the Native American community’s respect through the mud further. As more Americans wake up to the reality that the Redskins operates insidiously as a form cultural appropriation, the movement to condemn the name has gained momentum and may soon reach critical mass in challenging Snyder’s obstinate grip on the name. Until that time comes, I’d like to end with an analogy borrowed from Native American writer Gyasi Ross to definitively illustrate the absurdity in defending the Redskins name: No one in 21st century would defend a sports franchise or indeed any other organization named the San Francisco N***es or the Pittsburgh G**ks, so why does American still approve of the Redskins?