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.


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.




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