|Northern Arizona, 2006|
I was in a conversation with a colleague the other day, and he asked me in the course of our discussion if I thought that the Washington, DC pro football team should change its name.
Of course it should, I replied. It's amazing that the racist term has lasted this long into the 21st Century.
My colleague smiled as he thought that I had just stepped into the trap he had cleverly set for me. By my logic, he concluded, "then the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians should have to change their names, too," and the smile on his face implied "game over."
Not at all. "Braves" and "Indians" are not racist, derogatory terms. although there are some historical inaccuracies in the term "Indians," as Columbus had mistakenly believed he had sailed all the way to India, and the indigenous people he had encountered were Indians, not native North Americans. But that aside, if Italian-Americans aren't offended by naming a team after the error of one of their own, I have no objection to it, either.
But the term "redskins" is irreducibly racial, as it refers to the color (red) of a person's skin. There's no way of avoiding that it's a direct reference to race, and it's use in history has not been kind but was most often used to categorize an enemy presumed to be savage, hostile, and uncivilized. It's interesting to note, as Robert Pirsig points out in his book Lila, that the very same things the colonists said about the natives - that they were ill-mannered and uncouth and couldn't hold their liquor, but were surprisingly brave and tenacious in battle - were the exact same things that the Europeans said about the colonists. The colonists were either transferring the insult onto those they felt superior to, or else they had assumed the characteristics of those whose land they were taking.
In any event, the term "redskins" is a derogatory, racist term rooted in the unpardonable genocide that marked the Europeans' colonization of North America. It's not a suitable term for a pro football team, which is not to say that any term referring to some aspect or another of the native Americans is inappropriate.
Let me put it this way: it's acceptable that Notre Dame calls its sports teams the Fighting Irish, and that Boston has chosen the term Celtics for its basketball team. But it would be inappropriate to call a team "The Micks," or, in a closer analogy to the name of the Washington football team, "The Pasty-Faced Alcoholic Potato Eaters."
It's fine to call a team The Reds because the term does not refer to a skin color or a political affiliation any more than The Browns refers to skin tone.
It's acceptable to call a team or biker gang or other organization The Mayans or The Aztecs in reference to historical Mexican cultures, but it's inappropriate to use the slur "The Wetbacks" for anything.
The only reason that "redskins" sounds acceptable to us today is that we're so used to hearing it, having grown up in NFL culture. I can remember first realizing the implications of the name back in the 80s, and being mildly surprised that people were getting away with it, and like most people I concluded that it must be somehow alright.
But times have changed, and among those changes are greater racial and cultural sensitivity. What people called a team in the 20th Century may no longer be appropriate, tradition or not. Atlanta once had a minor-league baseball team back in the era before integration called "the Crackers," a derogatory term for caucasians. While it's mildly amusing that an all-white team chose to call themselves by an anti-white slur, sort of like black people using the notorious n-word, the term "Cracker" is also offensive to African Americans as one of its origins is supposedly the crackers of whips, e.g., slave owners. The baseball team has long since been disbanded and no one is calling for the name to be restored, but those who want to maintain the name of the Washington football team are practicing the same outdated insensitivity as would be the case for reviving the Crackers' team name,
So it's time for a new name for the Washington gridiron team, and I'm glad to offer a suggestion. Given the team's location (Washington DC), its host city's role as the seat of government, and the current political climate, the team from Washington should consider calling itself "The Washington Gridlock."