The Racism Behind A Name

This post is part of my ongoing research into Native American culture and modern issues of oppression. To see all posts on this subject, view the category page.

“Should the Washington Redskins change their name?” This topic is one of major debate right now. The basic argument is that the name is offensive and racist, which makes many Native Americans argue that is should be changed, while many sports fans say that it is a long-standing tradition and a symbol of pride for their team. I’m going to explore both sides of this issue.

There are many different aspects of Native American Culture, history, oppression, racism, and modern views to explore. I haven’t yet narrowed down my primary focus, so for the moment, I’m going to explore some thoughts and ideas here on the blog. Much of this will be a sort of “thinking out loud,” where I try to sort through ideas that I’m not very familiar with. I’ll be sharing research material that comes up as I explore these subjects.

The first thing I want to do, however, is declare my standpoint. In Communication Studies, Standpoint Theory is a theory which states that an individuals perspectives and views will be altered by their place in society, their history, their knowledge, and their power. On a basic level, this means that people from one standpoint can’t understand the troubles of another. For example, a wealthy white male from a privileged home who went to private school and works in the government can’t understand the troubles and life of a minority female who is a single mother living on welfare. Their experiences are different, and that can affect the way one views the other.

Every aspect of your standpoint can influence your view. If you’re the same race as another person, but one of you is rich and one is poor, you’ll have a similar standpoint on some issues and a different standpoint on others. There is no single “catch-all” category that will allow anyone to fully understand anyone else’s viewpoint.

Because I will be attempting to understand a culture I know little about, I am entering this research with firm awareness of my standpoint with regards to this subject. Therefore, I think it is important to declare who I am, so that both myself and anyone reading my research will know my standpoint and be aware of any possible biases or preconceptions my standpoint might bring.

I am a white, heterosexual, single male. I come from a lower-middle class family. I have experienced life working for minimum wage, and I know what it is like to be uncertain where my next meal is coming from. I do not have children, nor do I have any experience raising children (including personal understanding of the struggles and financial burdens of childcare). I am a college graduate, but I am also a nontraditional student and I didn’t graduate college until I was 33.

Based on my standpoint, I understand that I have a limited awareness of racial issues. I read about them, I learn about equal rights in school, and I support equality in every way. I have not, however, experienced the type of oppression that many people from minority groups have.

With that in mind, when I sat down to begin addressing the issue of Native American culture and oppression, I found that I went through a train of thought that ended up leading to an interesting question. The rest of this post will be exploring those thoughts and ending with that question.

My first thought when I was faced with the question “Should the Washington Redskins change their name?” was “It’s football, who cares?” I obviously had to move past this thought, but it’s important because it adds another dimension to my standpoint: I am not a sports fan.

Why is that important? Sports aren’t a crucial social issue, or so I might have said. But then I thought deeper about it, and I realized that someone’s status as a sports fan has some deep cultural implications. Here’s a list of why someone’s standpoint as a sport’s fan is important:

  • There has been research done into the psychological effects of “Sports Team Identification” (when a fan considers themselves part of the team’s group-identity) on a person’s behavior. A study by Keaton, et al., found that “Identified sport team fans who used catharsis, conflict linkage, and relational maintenance report a greater inclination to commit negative social behaviors as a result of team performance” (p. 3). In short, devoted sports fans develop a psychological connection that links their own self-worth to the performance of the team. If the team fails, the fans can feel like failures themselves. This can lead to aggressive behavior such as lashing out.
  • Sports also play a cultural role in our society. They are a group activity with customs, traditions, and an emotional impact on people who are involved with them. Orlando Patterson, a historical and cultural sociologist, said that sports have a “cultural and economic significance” and that “sport is a highly crystallised form of social structure, not found in other areas of society” (p. 550). In essence, this means that sports can be viewed in a cultural context in the same way art, music, and religion can. In fact, it can be argued that sports brings an even greater sense of community, a stronger emotional impact, and more cultural fixation than art does (just compare the number of fans at a sporting event to the number of visitors to a museum).
  • Sports fans are very well known for defending their team, and Sports Team Identification can lead to an “us vs them” attitude. Rival teams (such as the Cowboys vs the Eagles) can lead to fans feeling that fans of the opposing team are “enemies” or at the very least “others” (as in, not part of the “us” group). This can lead to segregation, and if someone from a rival team enters, say, the wrong sports bar, they may be subject to ridicule and aggression.

So by looking at sports in this way, I shifted my understanding of sports as “just another waste of time” (no different in my mind than any other activity), to “a complex, cultural activity that leads to the formation of groups and altered emotions and social behavior.” I think that distinction is important because of the points I’m about to address.

When considering the question of the Washington Redskins’ name change, I think it’s important to address what that change means. Originally, my view was “It’s not a big deal.” When I start thinking about sports teams and their fans as cultural and social constructs, however, it becomes more complex. The proponents and opponents of the name change debate become two different cultures, each with their own history, traditions, beliefs, and practices. Is one set of beliefs more important than the other? Well, I don’t think that’s the important factor here. The important factor is racism.

When I first heard the argument that the Redskins’ name was racist, I stopped and tried to put myself in the shoes of the Native Americans who would be insulted by this name. At first, I had a hard time. I’m Irish, and I could label myself as “Irish-American” instead of just “white.” My grandfather’s family was born in Ireland, and his parents and older brother all moved here before my grandfather was born. I have distant second-cousins still living in Ireland, and my family keeps in touch with them.

Based on my standpoint as an Irish-American, I tried to think how I would feel if the debate about the name change was over another team: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. My thoughts on the matter basically amounted to, “I could be offended that this team name stereotypes Irish as both drunkards and brawlers.” It did not, however, move me to any real emotion (I didn’t get angry or offended over this; I merely considered the possibility that others could).

I felt like I was missing some important point, however. Sports fans in favor of keeping the Redskins’ name have said they feel that the name “honor[s] the Native Americans” as “a symbol of loyalty and courage.” Those statements are easily open to dispute, but rather than focusing on the statements themselves, I want to look deeper.

After giving the issue some thought, I ended up considering the following scenario:

Imagine you are an African American. You find out a new sports team is forming nearby. The team uniforms will be inspired by colors used in the flags of African nations, and the team is meant to “honor African Americans” as “a symbol of African pride and heritage.”

Then you find out that the team will be named “The Mississippi Coloreds.”

Would you find this offensive? Would you want them to change the name? I went to Twitter and asked if people would consider “coloreds” offensive. The responses were consistent: yes, they find it offensive. Along those lines, I am sure there would be a LOT of protest to naming a sports team in this way.

This then brings me to a better understanding of the Redskins’ name change debate. If it’s not okay to name a sports team “honoring African Americans” by naming the team based on the color of that race’s skin, then why do people think it’s okay to name the Redskins in the same way?

Perhaps our society hasn’t had enough education in this regard to view “Redskins” as an offensive term in the same way we do other racist words. Though you might need to consider whether you would ever use the word when speaking to a Native American. I think that a more appropriate way to “honor Native Americans” would be to only use names they embrace, rather than names they find offensive.

This train of thought has certainly influenced the way I view the name change debate. I think that when taken in this context, it should be clear why the name is offensive.

There are a lot of other angles for me to pursue as I take this research forward, but I think what I’ve covered here is helping me to narrow my focus. Some of the key issues are cultures, the “us vs them” perspective that can develop between cultures, and the offensive nature of referring to a group of people based on their skin (even if people claim they are doing it to “honor” them). I’ll be exploring these issues more in the future, and hoping to increase my own understanding as I go along.


8 thoughts on “The Racism Behind A Name”

  1. I thought this post was great.

    My standpoint:
    I’m partially a minority (1/4 Mexican), but I have quite a bit of white privilege because I appear white. I’m a bisexual woman who has quite a bit of hetero privilege because I’m married to a male person. I have 2 young kids, one of them was a teen pregnancy (I was 19). I was raised firmly middle class, but have lived below the poverty level as an adult. I’ve never graduated “real” university, but I have several technical certificates. Oh, and I’m 25.

    My .02:
    I am a hockey fan. My team is Chicago. Their logo is a Native American chief head. For that reason alone, I do not support my favorite team by buying their t-shirts or other swag. I find it incredibly tasteless to borrow from a historically abused minorities’ culture by using their image as a banner to unite fans under.
    This, I think, is the key difference between teams like the Redskins and teams like the Fighting Irish. Granted, the Irish went through plenty of discrimination; but arguably, it was nothing on the scale of what Native Americans, or say, African Americans, went through over the course of the USA’s history.

    1. I am curious to hear more with regards to the mascot. I hadn’t previously considered the image itself part of the issue.

      Here is a good question: Would you consider any sports team offensive just by using a Native American mascot, even if they used a more appropriate name? For example, if the team was the “Washington Cherokee” or the “Chicago Sioux,” which is using tribal names instead, would you still consider that offensive?

      1. With regards to the logo, I almost consider that on par with going around in blackface.
        If I have a shirt that’s got a specific minority-race singer on it, that’s fine. I like that singer.
        But a generic stand in figure that’s supposed to represent the entire culture, such as the Native American chief head for the Chicago Blackhawks? I find that tasteless. It’s basically saying “All of *this race* of people can be summed up by this image.”
        Similarly, using the name “Redskins” and the argument that it’s supposed to represent loyalty and honor and whatever else, is summing up people into generalities. Saying “All of these people are *this way* because they are *this race*” is the epitome of racism. EVEN if it’s a supposed “good” trait, like loyalty/honor. Generalizing is bad. Period.

        So to answer your second question, yes. Because not all Sioux are like this, not all Cherokee are like that, etc.

  2. I think my problem is that it seems now-a-days people are finding offense in everything… it seems like a person can barely say a thing without offending someone somewhere… but the things is in how you look at it… I guess you could say that the term redskin is offensive in some ways… but then again people name their teams after warriors… groups that you would respect in battle… my school is the Trojans… why because they’re famous for being great warriors… and so to name your team after the Native Americans I would say is a compliment… it’s all in context though…

    I mean people see me and see a white girl of middle class… they would say how can I understand such because as you say it’s hard to completely understand what another group of people… but then again I grew up dirt poor and I was a minority in my school… racism goes both ways… but why should I go around crying offense… there are so many more important things to worry about… I think once we’ve solved world hunger, stopped the physical and mental abuse in the world, and cured the diseases, then someone can take the time to worry about some sports teams name…

    1. You make a good point about context mattering. However, after reading up on the issue, I have to say that there’s a difference between naming your sports team “Native Americans” versus naming them “Redskins.” One is a politically correct term, the other is naming them based on the color of their skin.

      To go off your example, “Trojans” aren’t just great warriors. They’re people from Troy. So in that case the name is based on the proper term used for citizens of Troy. Just as Spartans are from Sparta, and Americans are from America.

      A team like the “Trojans” might be viewed differently if it was called the “Whiteskins” or “Oliveskins” or anything else related to terms used for people’s skin color.

      1. that’s what I’m talking about though… ‘politically correct’ when you start cutting down on what people have to say… I know right now you’re just talking about the teams name… but so much isn’t politically correct… how far are people going to take it… right now it’s changing the name of a team that’s been around for how long? they start banning books from schools because of words said in them aren’t politically correct any more… doesn’t matter the true meaning of the text… how far are they going to take it? how long before our freedom of speech becomes controlled dialog… if someone named their team the pale whitey’s I wouldn’t be offended… you can say it’s not the same but how is it not… like I said there are more important things to fret over… people are just doing all they can to control people… to force them to think like them… to make us all the same… sameness is boring… we should be proud we’re different… there are numerous teams named after Native Americans… look it up… tons of them… Native Americans were treated abominably… I’ve read about it… it’s absolutely terrible what the Europeans did as they came over here… but there’s nothing we can do to change that past… but one thing has always stood out about them and that’s how brave they were… and that’s why we’ve named so many teams after them… in numerous ways… I know I may just be repeating myself… but what’s wrong with noting someone’s skin color… we’re a beautiful array of tones and pigments… like living artwork… why should we want to ignore that? we’re different and it’s magnificent…

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