How the name ‘Redskins’ Ignores the Past and Crutches the Future

In the United States, the First Amendment was established because, in the current time period, colonial citizens were being taken advantage of by a government that had limited power restrictions beyond its leader. Such precedence caused a revolt, and the leaders of the future new country made sure what they were fighting for would stand the test of time, and the guidelines they laid down would protect each man (and eventually woman) to purse their own happiness, free of over-seeing control and the oppression of others.

It was a set of rules established far before its time, but what was created initially as a shield, is now being used as a weapon.

The NFL organization the Washington Redskins has been under heavy fire in recent years because of the mascot they continue to use: Redskins.

Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has caused quite a bit of fuss — for good reason — and has recently come to the forefront of news headlines once again because his team’s attempt to trademark the Redskins’ brand was shot down as it could be viewed as offensive. But I’m not here to talk about possible money made, I’m here to talk about the principle behind it — ignorance, really.

Here’s my deal; we’re in the year 2014. With the near infinite number of countable nouns in the english language, how can one man cling to an incredibly offensive word to represent his billion dollar franchise, and not only get away with it, but convince people it’s not that big of a deal? Freedom of Speech, you say? To that, I laugh.

This is not about the government restricting your free speech. It’s about one man making millions of dollars on a discriminatory name, and more importantly, preventing even more millions of people from respecting their fellow man.

What are words? Simply, letters organized in a certain fashion to connotate meaning and purpose, correct? The dictionary adds an average of 4,000 words per year which tells us what? People evolve in their expressions. Human being are able to better communicate as time moves forward. Where one word may have had a singular definition at a certain point in time, it could take on a new form in the modern age. This is called a semantic change. But despite the concept of semantic change evident in today’s conversations, there is a part of words that can not change: their history.

On June 19th, I was an assistant for story down in Florida where my boss and I were investigating a youth football camp that also went under the name “Redskins” — it seemed to be newsworthy at the time because of the national news being made by the Washington Redskins. When we arrived, the facilitates were empty, but we were lucky enough to catch a board member there doing maintenance checks around the grounds. As he noticed us, we informed him of why we were there and he shook his head. I figured the interview was a lost cause, but to my surprise, he agreed to do an interview on the record.

As we began to question him on his facilities and the history of the program, his answers were surprising.

The facility was opened first in 1960. When asked if they’d ever had a problem with the name, he said 15 years ago a group of Native Americans came to them in protest of the name. He said the group and other 23 board members all met and agreed the program was doing nothing to slander Native American people in any way. He went on to explain only 20-25 percent of people find it offensive. (side note: all 30 teams in the league are named after different Native American tribes).

Numbers and large groups can be intimidating, but majority is hardly in the realm of just or fair. Just because MOST people don’t see a word as offensive, doesn’t mean it’s not. According to the American Census Bureau, just under 3 million people identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska natives. If the statistic is true that one of every three Native Americans find the term “Redskins” offensive, that’s almost ONE MILLION people who are ashamed and hurt by the term. Is there a magic number we have to hit to realize how ignorant and stubborn broadcasting the name “Redskins” is? Because if I had a dollar for every Native American decedent who was offended by the term “Redskins”, I’d own a boat — a fairly nice boat, I may add.

I’ll personalize my case by saying this, I am a white male. For the most part, my history has been pleasurable at the expense of others. Sure, stories of oppression are told in some form, but they’re mostly involving wars and greed. People of different color, gender and race have had far tougher roads to eventually be able to live the lives they do in America today.

People tend to forget what life was like just 50-60 years ago. African-Americans were still being thought of as “lesser people”, and in many ways, women were too, regardless of ethnicity. “Rights” are hardly acceptable if the surrounding culture doesn’t embrace them. We’ve broken down so many barriers as a culture, I just don’t understand why “Redskins” is still so tough to get over.

You wouldn’t use derogatory words for black people or asian people to represent a national sports team, and even most college programs are doing away with putting “lady” in front of their women’s sports teams because it puts them in a “dainty” light, as if they’re not suppose to be competitive and tough.

So why in the world is it such a hard concept to drop a fully commercialize racial slur like “Redskins”?

The word “Redskin” is a slur, whether you’ve convinced yourself it is or not. The word, in itself, is designed to segregate a certain group of people due to the color of their skin. The history behind that is when Europeans discovered this new world accidentally, they crowned themselves higher than the native people. They drove the natives out of their own land, forcing them back into inhabitable areas, recognizing their “lesser being” by the color of their skin. That’s the history you bring up when you speak that word.

Here’s a test. Would you walk up to a person of native american decent whom you did not know and pleasantly say to them, “Hello, Redskin. How are you today?”

I find most of the resistance to the Redskins’ name change coming from older generations, and that in itself, I find to be puzzling. On the day we paid tribute to the anniversary of D-Day (June 6th), I was talking to an older gentleman who said he can’t imagine what the world will be like when those people who lived in the time of World War II are gone, and how we might forget what it cost to be free. Part of me agrees with that, but if that generation is so worried about remembering what happened then to better our tomorrows, how can they so easily forget the mistreatment and segregation from that same time? How does D-Day carry so much meaning, but oppression just doesn’t? Because it doesn’t involve you now? I don’t want that generation to have to cease to exist for changes in equality to continue, I want them to realize how foolish it is to brush this issue off!

I’m sure freedom (and the First Amendment) were in the minds of a lot of people during World War II. However,  something they fought for on that day is now being used as a weapon to keep discrimination alive.

The First Amendment wasn’t established, fought for and died over for you to be able to say whatever you want, even if it’s offensive. It’s a guideline, a path maker and a reminder that no man (or woman) of any color, race or ethnicity should have to conform to the ways of the many, so cultural norms can exist as offensive and yet approved to the few who it may hurt the most.

At the end of my interview with the youth football organization board member, he said to me, “We don’t teach kids about Native Americans. We teach them about football.”

Maybe if he did more of the former, the future would be a better place, and those kids could someday grow up with an enlightened mind for their fellow man by standup for what’s right in the wake of a history that brought so much sorrow.

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