When I was in high school, our mascot was the Indians. Native Americans and their supporters, including me, found it offensive to name a team after a racial group, especially a name they did not choose for themselves and detested. We could not sit quietly by as the red-skinned, hook-nosed, headdress-wearing mascot jumped around on the field whooping out war cries. What a gross oversimplification of a proud, diverse people.
As a Jew, I can only liken this to how appalled I’d be if some sports team used my people as a mascot, perhaps dressing someone up in a black coat, with dark curls, another hook nose, adorning the outfit with our precious stars of David as the ridiculous figure pranced around the field clutching a menorah, demeaning our rich, complex culture.
We lost the battle to change our team name in the 1970s, and it’s been fought off and on at my alma mater ever since. Today, John Burroughs High School in Burbank, California still fields the Indians at its games. Go big red. Ugh.
But for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, a setback came this week. At last recognizing that using a racial slur for a football mascot is unacceptable, the US Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, noting the team name as “disparaging to Native Americans.” The ruling applies to six different trademarks for the Redskins, all of which contain the word “Redskin.” While some Native Americans are not offended, the judge found that approximately 30 percent consider it an ethnic slur. A term that so many find insulting is not worthy of trademark protection, the judge said.
Some Native Americans consider the “R” word their “N” word. And those who live in the minority group know far better than the rest of us which terms are used to demean them. Those observations deserve our respect.
One of the more aggravating responses I had to my recent book SUSPICION NATION, in which I revealed a great deal of recent research about how vast and deep racism remains in America, was from white folks who had not reviewed this research – not read my book, nor any others on the subject – telling me flat out that they didn’t think racism was a problem anymore. They don’t experience it, so it doesn’t exist. And therefore nothing needs to be done.
Redskins team owner Daniel Snyder embodies this see-no-evil, arrogant approach. In a letter to fans, Snyder noted he respects “the opinions of those who are offended by the team name,” but “cannot ignore our 81-year history.” He said that he would never change the name, “NEVER … you can use all caps.”
History? That’s his justification? History certainly favors racism. For thousands of years, people all over the world have disparaged other racial groups, often as a prelude to enslavement and mass slaughter. Only in the last hundred years – really, the last 50 or so – has the idea of equality begun to catch on. Our own genocide of Native Americans has still not been properly addressed in any meaningful way. Many are entirely unaware of our long history of shameful treatment of millions of indigenous people.
It is because we cannot ignore that history, Mr. Snyder, that the very least we can do – truly, the very least – is to respect the dignity of minority groups in choosing our language.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.