Last fall I attended a rally in support of a protest over Washington’s NFL team name, “The Redskins.” I mentioned my attendance on my Facebook page and only two of my friends “liked” my post.
To be clear, I only have about 60 Facebook friends, but usually when I post something that reflects my values, I receive a dozen or so “likes.” I was disappointed—though not surprised—that posting my participation in the protest would garner less support than usual. It seemed to reflect the reactions to my stance on this issue in the “real world.” We, who are members of the mainstream American culture, can find it difficult to empathize with this issue. With the dominant narrative shaping opinion, matters of humanity and dignity can easily be overlooked.
The majority of mainstream America, especially football fans, have expressed a strong desire to keep the team name the same. How do we know? Popular media outlets report on a multitude of surveys to let us know how unpopular a name-change would be. There is even a petition drive to keep the Washington “Redskins” name on MoveOn.org. It states that fans “are strongly against the name change,” and petition asserts three times that the Redskins name honors Native Americans.
But wait! Are the fans or team owners the best judge of which terms “honor” a group of people that are regularly disparaged by the larger culture?
Silencing a Legitimate Voice: A Parallel
I am not Native American. I have not experienced the stigmatized life that most Native Americans live. As a woman, however, I have experienced gender discrimination in varying forms for my entire life. I know when I am being heard and I know when my voice is being silenced.
The practice known as the catcall takes a variety of forms including one or more men calling out that a woman is sexy, whistling at her, or declaring by what method they would like to do her. The catcall is demeaning for most women.
If women were to point out that the catcall is offensive, would the media start a campaign featuring statistics of populations of men who wish to “flatter” women this way in order to legitimize the behavior?
Hopefully not in this day and age! Several decades ago, however, when women’s voices on this issue were finally becoming newsworthy, that is exactly what happened.
Amplifying a Less Relevant Voice
A survey conducted by WUSA9 and USA Today tallied more than 600 people over four days in September last year. Respondents were residents of D.C. and surrounding suburbs. “65 percent of all subjects responded they do not want the team to change its name.” The sample broke down as follows
- 19% did not identify as sports fans
- 53% were Washington fans
- 28% were fans of another team
Sounds official doesn’t it? But these numbers are a distraction.
Rather than percentages of fan affiliation, let us look at the same study’s acknowledgment that “the majority … [found] the word ‘Redskins’ to be offensive in all or some context.”
Popular Opinion Can Justify Bias
Surveys such as these simply reveal a belief that the Native American view is not legitimate. Issues of dignity should not be left up to popular opinion. Especially if the opinions gathered are those who benefit from the imbalance.
Ignorance of the cultural foundations of oppression breeds arrogance and affords ensured privilege and a sense of entitlement to the dominant group. In contrast, humanity is given the opportunity to evolve when empathy rises to the surface.
As humans, we learn from our past behavior and bring that knowledge into our current responses. Isn’t waking up to our transgressions an opportunity to learn empathy and step outside the confines of self-satisfaction?
The Argument for Origins
One argument to support the idea of “honor” in the MoveOn.org petition drive is the oft-cited intent of George Preston Marshall, the team’s owner in 1932. It is said that he renamed the team the “Redskins in honor of his head coach, William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, an American Indian. This was done to honor Native Americans not offend them.”
Here, we have the dominant culture asserting control over “the truth” again.
Setting the Record Straight
In the CBS Local article, How Many Americans Think “Redskins” is a Slur, Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo gives us more to think about.
“Marshall had a reputation as a racist. He was the last NFL owner who refused to sign black players — the federal government forced him to integrate in 1962 by threatening to cancel the lease on his stadium. When he died in 1969, his will created a Redskins Foundation but stipulated that it never support ‘the principle of racial integration in any form.’
“And [Lone Star] Dietz, the namesake Redskin, may not have even been a real Indian. Dietz served jail time for charges that he falsely registered for the draft as an Indian in order to avoid service. According to an investigation by the Indian Country Today newspaper, he stole the identity of a missing Oglala Sioux man.”
Dignity for All
It can be difficult to let go of our understanding of how the world works. We have each invested in a foundation that we depend upon to know our place in the world. The foundation is reinforced by popular culture and reasserted by our belief that we mean no harm.
We have all, at one time or another, been hurt by those “who mean no harm.” Might we hope that they would be open-hearted enough to hear why it was so? Might we offer that same consideration to those who have had the courage to raise their voices?
By the way: The volunteers at MoveOn.org have placed a notice on the “Keep the Name” petition, stating that it doesn’t reflect the values of the MoveOn organization.