Masking stereotypes: Sports teams should abolish derogatory names and mascots

The Washington Redskins sends a toxic message by brandishing a derogatory racial slur as its team name, and in its shadow is the even worse message sent by the harmful stereotype that is the team’s mascot.

The name is derogatory because it’s used to separate a group of people based on the color of their skin. What if instead of Redskins, the team’s name was Blackskins, Yellowskins, or Whiteskins?

Those despicable names automatically secrete an offensive taste on the tongue. There’s no question that they wouldn’t be accepted.

The Washington football team’s mascot is a harmful stereotype because it’s a caricature that sends the message: This is what Native Americans look like.

But Native Americans don’t look like that; the caricature is a racist vision penned centuries ago by white settlers. Yet for some reason, it still hangs on in a culture that is rapidly moving away from those stereotypes. It’s time for Washington to catch up.

Native Americans are making unprecedented gains in the fight against racist team names and mascots, which are an extension of a long legacy of discrimination. The widespread acceptance of that kind of hurtful broadcasting, and team owner Daniel Snyder’s defense of it, points out a large deal of disrespect. 

When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled Washington’s trademark registration earlier this year, calling the name and logo “disparaging,” Snyder appealed the decision and came back with a textbook intimidation tactic. He sued five Native Americans.

Before the patent office’s decision, 50 members of Congress signed a letter to the National Football League urging the NFL to endorse a name change, calling the name a “racial slur.”

Lack of historical awareness is one reason why the broadcasting of a racist name and mascot has gone unchecked for so long.

The atrocities suffered by the First People over the course of this country’s history are innumerable. The unconscionable implication underlying this fact is that as numerous as the attacks against native people have been, awareness is minimal.

Cultural caricatures are demeaning. They don’t honor or celebrate the cultures they depict. They send the message that the people being depicted are inferior. That message is dangerous because it bleeds into public policy decisions. This is where prejudice turns into racism. 

When the public has a racist perception of a marginalized people, I believe policy makers are then more likely to withhold representation, either deliberately or unknowingly, because the marginalized people are rendered unworthy.

In a televised interview on MSNBC, Jacqueline Keeler, founder of the group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, said, “We are stereotyped; we are marginalized; and our issues become obscured by mascots. Everyone knows the mascots, they know the stereotypes, but they don’t know about us.”

In the same interview, conducted two months ago, Keeler drew attention to the fact that Native American youth suffer from suicide rates that are three times higher than any other group. 

Mainstream media seem to largely ignore Native American issues. So when a racist mascot receives the most widespread representation in the media, it lowers young Native Americans’ self-esteem.

In July, representatives from the Fort Yuma Quechan (Kwatsan) Tribe refused a donation from Snyder’s foundation for a skate park they built in memory of teen suicide victims.

True, Native Americans deal with negative issues of their own—of abuse and more. But their stories are also triumphant. There are numerous examples of cultural revitalization, along with victories in updating narratives taught in public education.

The problem is that most people don’t see the full picture of Native American communities, because the majority of airtime is occupied by a professional sports team’s racist name and logo.

Racial slurs and stereotypes have harmed Native Americans throughout history. A false perception of Native Americans as “savages” and “heathens” led to racist justifications for government policies that systematically attempted to eradicate them.

In 1830, removal policies led by Andrew Jackson pushed the First People of the East Coast behind the Mississippi. After years of wars and killings, such as the Sand Creek Massacre and Wounded Knee, Prisoner of War camps (politely labeled “reservations”) corralled the remaining First People into poverty-stricken ghettos.

In the first half of the 20th century, Native children were stolen from their families and an attempt was made to beat the last of their cultural identity out of them at boarding schools.

Despite these atrocities, Native Americans have survived and thrived in a society that sits back and watches their culture be ridiculed. 

When average American citizens sit down at the dinner table and give thanks for what they have, they seldom think about the people who were here well before they were, the people who populated the earth their homes now occupy.

It’s time for Americans to join Native people in the effort to abolish a professional football team’s derogatory name and mascot.

Professional sports teams play a large role in American culture. Families pass on team alliances from generation to generation. With this sort of influence, professional teams are accountable for the messages they broadcast.

Right now, it’s football season, and watching games is a part of holiday tradition. With so many people watching football together, it’s an appropriate time to recognize the racist message that the Washington team broadcasts with its name and logo.


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