Why we really want the Redskins nickname removed (and why we’re wrong)

23 09 2013

Let’s not beat around the bush, white America.¹ We’re calling louder and louder for sports organizations like the Washington Redskins to give up their racially-charged nicknames.

But our activism has nothing to do with the plight of actual Native Americans.

We want the names changed because they make us uncomfortable. Us, and no one else.

The sooner we come clean and admit this to ourselves and everyone else, the sooner we can make any actual progress in race relations.

Let me say this first: I understand the controversy. I would wholeheartedly support the changing of the Redskins’ name. Historically, it’s long been a highly pejorative term used for a group the U.S. government took extreme advantage of for decades, and a group that, frankly, is still struggling² in many places to right itself from that abuse.

But I’ve also noticed that the cacophony of shrill voices dominating this conversation on both sides belong to a decidedly monochromatic mob. The people carrying the national discussion right now are not Native Americans themselves, not tribe members or concerned residents of reservations. They’re white guys in suits and ties, cultural critics who grew up in the upper-class suburbs, college students with a lot of book knowledge and very little interaction with the actual Native Americans those books talk about.³

Rick Reilly wrote last week about the minimizing of Native American voices in this debate, and while he essentially advocates for keeping the Redskins moniker, he makes a wildly insightful case. Reilly cites high schools made up of 99% Native American children who fail to feel offended by their school’s ‘intolerant’ mascot. He cites his father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian who lives and works on a reservation and sees no issue with the name ‘Redskins.’ Why is it that these voices, the ones most personally affected by the issue, are the very last ones we ever hear trumpeted?

I’ve got a theory. It’s that we white Americans make a big deal out of a racially insensitive nickname not to protect the race being insulted, but to protect our own feelings.

Seeing the Redskins nickname makes us feel bad. It insults our idea that our sophisticated education has brought about a post-racial society. It throws into question our generational identity of being “forward-thinking” and “open-minded.” It drags up every feeling of white guilt that’s been instilled in us since our first elementary school lesson about oppression of the American Indians.

We don’t like the Redskins nickname because it reminds us that our ancestors did some really terrible things to other people’s ancestors, but even worse, our response is to think that by changing a logo on the helmet of a twenty-five-year-old playing a game, we can atone for all those feelings and never think about them again. We’re up in arms about insensitivity and Redskins history and n-word comparisons because to us, that’s the best way to assuage our guilt. Meanwhile many of the people we’re supposedly “protecting” are dealing with poverty, violence, and substance abuse in run-down reservations – but why would we take all the effort to help out there when we can instead eradicate our guilt with a picket sign outside an NFL stadium?

Quite frankly, the tendency for us middle class white folks to jump down Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s throat is selfish. Here’s a novel thought: why don’t we take a step back, stop shouting Webster definitions of “redskin” and take a moment to listen to the Native Americans whose voices we’re drowning out while claiming to speak for. Maybe they care a great deal about sports team nicknames. Maybe they care about a whole host of other issues much more. And when you’re truly trying to help someone, listening to them is generally a pretty good first step.

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¹ I just don’t like this phrase, and I apologize to everyone for forcing myself to use it here.

²If you only read one thing today, skip my article and read this one. It’s old, but one of those great pieces of investigative journalism that transcends timeliness.

³ I’m well aware of the irony that this entire post is written by one of these very same white guys. Like rain on your wedding day.





Trust and the Superhuman

19 09 2013

Written for a college course in the Fall of 2011, republished to the blog in 2013.

Trust and the Superhuman
What the obsession with superhero movies tells us about ourselves

I must admit that I’m a sucker for superheroes. Give me a darkened cinema, a glimpse of freakish physical powers, and 90 minutes of high-flying action and garish spandex outfits, and there’s a good chance I won’t be getting any work done for the rest of the night. Throw in a menacing super-villain and an epic climactic conflict and you’ve found my kryptonite. I simply cannot pass up a good superhero movie.

I am apparently far from alone. It seems every other Hollywood film follows a costumed crusader these days. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises might be the most anticipated movie in years with a star-studded cast returning to finish the gritty Batman trilogy. And Marvel Studios’ set of interweaving hero films will grow to eight with the ongoing production of two more sequels (Ironman 3 and Thor 2) along with next spring’s The Avengers.

But what is it about these caped crusaders that we find so captivating? Eye-popping action sequences and eye-candy lead actors are always going to work in Hollywood, of course, but superhero movies do something more: they appeal to a society mired in sticky cynicism.

Since Watergate, American society has found it increasingly difficult to trust our once-hallowed public institutions. Scandal after scandal, controversy after public indignity has seemed to spring out of every establishment we once thought we could believe in. Superhero films tell us much about how we ourselves view America’s preeminent institutions. Batman’s Gotham City is seething with government and police corruption at the same time that our real-life Capitol cities are wracked by bribes and sex scandals. The Incredible Hulk (2008) battles a powerful super-villian in the U.S. military, which will stop at nothing to use the Hulk’s powers as a weapon. Misgivings about the military abound in a world of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Distrust of war industry? Check. Ironman’s villain is the military-industrial complex that creates wars to create profit. And alas, even journalists can’t escape distrust and disdain – who can forget Spiderman’s sensationalizing supervisor J. Jonah Jameson, who slants the news to sell papers and demonize the heroic webslinger? If costumed heroes act as a mirror, the reflection is a deeply cynical society with little willingness to trust in anything.

Yet we do trust in the heroes. And therein may lie the answer to our question of fascination. Yes, superheroes give us heart-pumping action scenes and fantastic heroes, but more than any of that, they give an intensely cynical society something to trust in. Spiderman’s straining to use his gift responsibly is a breath of fresh air for a generation all too familiar with abuse of power. When Tony Stark sacrifices his company in a refusal to build weapons of mass destruction, we finally see the conscience in Big Business we’ve so long yearned for. And when Batman refuses to kill the Joker in cold blood, we get a glimpse of a hero we can trust to act with integrity, even when no one else is watching. These redemptive figures of the superheroes start to take on a suddenly religious significance.

Ironman is a fascinating story of a genuinely nauseating creature, Tony Stark, brash and selfish, who somehow gains the sympathy of the audience as he strives to become a good person. Really, the narrative of a cripplingly flawed character yearning for goodness is the very picture of the Christian walk, aside from the fact that we must rely on the grace of God and not a robotic suit. When Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders at the end of The Dark Knight, we can’t help but notice parallels in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary to save the world and Batman’s to save Gotham. Police hunt a limping Dark Knight who just saved their city; we crucify a bleeding White Knight who just saved ours. My favorite superhero scene: Spiderman’s moment of triumph in Spiderman 3, when he finally shakes off the black parasitic villain Venom and the blackness in his own soul. Tellingly, it all happens in the tower of a church cathedral.

Living in a world without heroes to root for takes its toll on a people. Politicians, professional athletes, celebrities and even public servants have let us down time and time again. Burned one too many times by those we trusted, we often turn away from personal connections. We risk falling into a lonely, isolated existence, protecting ourselves from another letdown. Superheroes perform their most heroic act when they save us from this false reality – a world in which we cannot trust anyone – and give us, as The Dark Knight says, not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need right now: a hero we can trust.