“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” -Søren Kierkegaard
I think we can all agree that words carry incredible power and their meanings are often times not held in what is being said verbally, but the connotations that are being applied subliminally. Phrases like “black” and “white” imply a system of higher and lower, good and bad, superior and inferior, but are played off as if they are just superficial observations about skin color. This is very apparent in the racial slur “Redskin.” Something that appears to be a standard observation has historically been used in ways to undermine an enormous group of peoples and treat them as inferior to the colonizers who coined the term. But what does “Redskin” really imply?
What do you envision when the term comes up in discourse? It is not a person with RED skin, this is quite impossible. Instead I believe the popular conception is someone with high cheekbones, large eyes, a big nose, feathers, barely clothed, maybe with a tomahawk or a peace pipe or bow and arrow or something of the sort. With this in mind; I would like to ask are there any representations or caricatures that come to mind when speaking of white people? Is there a standard get-up for people of European descent complete with clothing attire, facial structures and expressions? Can you imagine the feeling that whenever someone is introduced to you they try to pick out these characteristics in your personality or wait for you to behave a specific way in order to confirm their biases about the ethnic group you belong to? Or maybe even being the token representative for ALL of your people in a given situation? Like saying, “So and so, you are white-how would white people feel about this?” Or “Uh-uh, I talked to white people before and they don’t feel the same way you do about that situation.” At this point your whiteness is taken into question and attempts to categorize your amount of whiteness are enforced. (e.g. through blood quantum)
What the term “Redskin” and the mascot actually do is reinforce the mass ideology of symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.), understood in the social sciences to be a means of maintaining social inequality. By confining all Natives to this one representation or depiction cultivates the misconceptions our society has indoctrinated in us from a very early age. It is an attempt to glamorize the genocide of millions of people with this friendly slogan for a competitive American sport. I’m sure if we try to think back to grade school we can all remember the symbolic annihilation that took place against Native Americans in the first 4 to 6 pages of our history textbooks. In this introductory chapter the historians cover hundreds of thousands of years of the histories of hundreds of tribes, their interactions with one another, their complex legal, moral, religious, and philosophical approaches, their helpfulness and brotherhood that was extended to the Europeans when contact was first made, the way they helped shape the American constitution, the way they helped the Americans fight the British and “win” American away from England, and also their bravery in the face of colonization. Or wait a second…..I had to take college courses to learn all of this stuff.
The term “Redskin” and the caricatures of Native peoples dehumanizes us to a nostalgic figure of times passed. They turn us into a mascot as if we are a concept that can be conceived or a snapshot in time that can be saved. Not that we are living, breathing, current, human beings who are ever changing. After over 500 years of massacres, exile, prison camps (reservations), broken treaties, boarding schools, smallpox blankets, poisoned rations, religious persecution, alcohol, prison, hazardous waste, and medical experiments NATIVE AMERICANSARE STILL HERE. The resilience of these people is definitely a trait to be revered and honored but if the nation truly respected these incredibly strong individuals they would not allow this systematic genocide to take place.
Some Natives might not be offended by the term “Redskins” but there is no ambassador for the p.c. police. Some white people might not be offended by the term “cracker” or “honky” but they should be offended by the hate and disdain connotated in the use of the terms. Maybe someday we can get to the point where we can all be regarded as humans, but until then we should take a culturally sensitive standpoint for our depictions of one another. I was once told the Golden Rule, or “treat others as you want to be treated” is one of the most selfish ways to think imaginable. The way we should look at it is not from our perspective, but from their own. How selfish is it to think everybody wants to be treated the same way as we do considering everyone has different backgrounds and ways of life? So in concluding this paper, I ask you to at least consider “how can I treat this person the way they wish to be treated?”
Naomi Brisley is a member of the deer clan and the Seneca Nation of Indians. She was born and raised on the Allegheny territory in western New York. She currently attends Syracuse University and is majoring in Sociology and Philosophy with a minor in Native American studies.