On March 24, Dan Snyder issued a letter to the devout fans of his beloved Washington Red*kins announcing the creation of the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” The announcement served as a rallying cry for all those who support the Red*kins and other ethnic team names and mascots, but it was issued for all the wrong reasons.
In the letter, Snyder serves up claims of a team legacy of honor and respect for Native people, and widespread Native American support, as reasons to keep controversial team name.
But conveniently absent from the letter was any mention that the facts, figures, and voices of Native Americans offered as “support” for the team name have been cherry-picked to frame the team in a positive light. Also curiously missing is any reference to the growing body of social science research demonstrating that ethnic team names and mascots have a strong negative impact on both Native and non-Native Americans—even when people aren’t aware of it.
To be sure, Snyder and his supporters are right that there are people, including some Native Americans, who see no problem with ethnic team names and mascots. In fact, like some African Americans who use the N-word, some Native Americans do call themselves the R-word, and some wear team jerseys. Some Native American tribes have even gone so far as to give their official blessing to schools, like the Florida State Seminoles, to call themselves by tribal names.
And support for these team names and mascots is widespread. An Associated Press poll conducted last year, for example, found that 79% of Americans are in favor of the Red*kins keeping their name. And even stronger support was found in the 2004 National Annenberg Survey. In that study, a staggering number of self-identified Native Americans–almost 90%–said that the Red*kins team name didn’t bother them.
But popular opinion does not make something right. And research on ethnic team names and mascots shows that the real world is a very different place than these surveys suggest.
A recent (2011) study by Chaney, Burke, and Burkley, for example, found that many people, in fact, do not distinguish between their feelings between stereotypical Native mascots and actual, living, breathing, Native
American people. Other studies have shown that mascots engender a racially hostile environment, promote negative stereotyping, and harm the self-esteem of Native youths.
That’s why I don’t buy Dan Snyder’s latest PR campaign. At best, the Red*kins Foundation is a ruse to pull the wool over the eyes of sports lovers everywhere, a weak attempt to fool us into thinking that you can
get away with hurting Native Americans with one hand so long as no one is paying attention to what the other hand is doing. At worst, it could not only convince people that we should ignore the impact of ethnic team names and mascots, but that they’re actually a good thing, too.
That would be a PR touchdown, to be sure.
What supporters of the Red*kins–Native and non-Native alike–seem not to realize is that ethnic mascots are integrally intertwined with their offensive team names and together they have the effect of perpetuating
institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism contributes to high rates of unemployment, poverty, health problems, and inadequate education for many Native Americans. In short, Native team names and mascots contribute to the very problems we should be focused on solving.
That’s why ethnic team names and mascots don’t amount to silly words and images we can afford to ignore. Indifference can’t be an option when it hurts real people.
That’s also why we need more than a PR campaign and false claims that “as a team, we have honored (Native Americans) through our words and on the field, but now we will honor them through our actions.” There is no honor in offering a band-aid to people you’re running over with a racial slur.
If the Red*kins really want to honor Native Americans, it can start by changing the name, not just of the team, but of its insulting new foundation, too. By doing so it can show that honor and respect comes first from listening to others, honestly re-appraising one’s own actions, and setting aside one’s pride and ego to make a real difference.
Let that be its rallying cry.
DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Unfinished Dream: A Discussion on Rights, Equality, and Inclusivity.