What’s Wrong with the Redskins?

Photo by Washington Redskins photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Washington Redskins photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t think many football fans give the image in the Redskins jersey much thought.  Football is about tackles and yardage and touchdowns. The Redskins are the guys who brought home three NFL championships and three Superbowl rings.  They’ve been the Redskins for over eighty years.  So why does it matter what they’re called?

A Tribe Called Red, a Canadian band whose members are First Nations, or aboriginal Canadians, recently caused a controversy when one of them wore a mock jersey for an imaginary team called the Caucasians.  The logo has a caricature of a blond, grinning white guy with a dollar sign over his head.  People called it racist against white people. I linked to an article about it on Facebook.  Most commenters thought it was a very effective statement.  Several people thought it was funny.  But the fact that whites, including myself, are able to laugh at that t-shirt reminds us that the balance of power is heavily tipped in our favor.

I’m so comfortable in my whiteness that I can afford to mock my race because I don’t stand to lose anything by it.  I have de facto respect that I don’t have to fight for. Meanwhile, Native Americans still struggle for a modicum of the inherent respect I take for granted.

The United States has never honored a treaty with Native Americans.  People who look like me and talk like me took their land, attempted to erase their cultures (and in some cases succeeded), and even went so far as to purposefully infect them with diseases to which they had no resistance.  Today Native Americans live amongst the rest of us or on reservations, somewhat sovereign pieces of land that have high rates of poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and violence.  We left them with this, and yet idealize a stereotype of cultures we destroyed.

So tell me again why changing the name of a sports team is such a big deal?

I didn’t choose to be white.  But if I’d had a choice, assuming I’d known anything about the way the world worked, I would’ve chosen to be white.  My life is easier because I’m white.  My kids’ lives will be easier.  I didn’t choose for it to be that way, but the truth is, it is.

I didn’t chose to be Texan either, or Southern, but I’m glad I am.  It’s who I am.  It’s in the way I eat, the stories I tell, the traditions I cherish, and the way I talk.

There are things that Southern people say. Ain’t.  Fixin’ to.  Djeetyet? Cotton pickin’. These expression are just part of my dialect that distinguish me from people in the rest of the country. I love where I’m from. Its history is often ugly, but whose isn’t?  This is where I was born and raised and this is how I talk.

It wasn’t until college that I really looked at words and what they carry. And I wasn’t too keen on changing at first.  It seemed silly to me that people got so worked up over something so stupid.  Cotton pickin’ is an adjectival phrase that describes frustration towards the noun it describes. I’ve heard it all my life. My grandmother said it.  My mom said it.  I said it, too.  But I’ve never seen it written. Never spelled it out. It was something Southern people called the lawnmower when it was being cantankerous.  “I can’t get the cotton pickin’ thing to work!” I never thought about a black person while cursing a contrary piece of lawn equipment. It wouldn’t even make sense for me to compare a broken lawnmower to a black person in the Old South.  I always just assumed slaves worked harder than anybody else back then. Didn’t have much choice did they?  So why would I equate a malfunctioning lawnmower to black person?  Slaves worked hard.  The lawnmower doesn’t work.  A comparison is illogical.

Way back when, slaves picked the cotton. They were machines of flesh that required a white master to operate effectively. Cotton-pickin’ wasn’t about whether something worked or not – it was about an object’s inherent worth.  After Abolition, blacks in the South still picked the cotton. They weren’t really slaves then, just worthless sub-humans. Generations later that idea isn’t part of my suburban reality, yet it lingers in my language.

Though my intentions when I said that word were never offensive, the expression carried with them a reminder of a painful past that people who look like me perpetrated against people who don’t.  I never thought twice about the expression or where it came from.  I probably never even visualized its parts:  Cotton.  Picking.  But my African American friends hear something different.  They hear the vestiges of history that still permeate their daily lives, something I will never be able to fully understand.  And they hear my ignorance regarding what it means to be black in America.

We’ve come a long way since slavery, and we’ve still got quite a ways to go.  I stopped saying cotton-pickin’, and a few other Southern expressions, because I want to keep walking forward.  I may not hear what they hear when someone says “cotton-pickin’,” but I now hear a history that makes me uncomfortable, too.

Changing the name of the Washington Redskins is no different.  When the name changes, and it inevitably will now that the U.S. Patent Office has refused to renew the logo, football will still be football.  There will be sweat and glory and touchdowns and Nike endorsements.  But perhaps we will take one step, even if it’s a small one, toward closing the gap history has left us.  Change may be uncomfortable at first, but refusing to do so in some sort of glorification of your history doesn’t make you a patriot or a loyalist or the opposite of a bleeding heart.  It makes you an asshole.