Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Redskins...It's Complicated

I’m a little behind on my NPR listening…as usual. I just finished listening to a piece from October 31 on whether or not the name Redskins was psychologically damaging. And at that point, after having thought about it before, I decided to do a little research. You see, the people pushing for the Washington team to change its name say that no team should have a name that’s an ethnic slur. But my question is “was that word always an ethnic slur, or have times and sensibilities simply changed?”

And let’s face it, times have changed a lot. I’ve been watching a six-hour documentary on the musical theater in America, called Broadway, and one of the things it mentions early on was that in the days of vaudeville, ethnic jokes were popular not so much to make fun of “those other people,” but because most of the people going to see the shows were immigrants, and the jokes about them made them part of America. They were included in the humor. And watching a lot of old Fleischer cartoons from the 1930s, you can see that. Jokes that we would think now were horribly insensitive, and especially accent jokes, were just part of the shtick.

With this in mind, we need to think about the term and the team name Redskins. A little history shows that the Washington team originally played in Boston as the Boston Braves, starting in 1932. But when they moved over to Fenway Park the next year, they became the Redskins. One version of the story says that this was in deference to one of the coaches who claimed to be part Sioux. Another possibility is that since Fenway was the home of the Red Sox in baseball, it should be the home of the Red Skins in football.

But the question remains: was the term always offensive, or have times simply changed?

In 1992 Clarence Page wrote the following in the Chicago Tribune:

[The Washington Redskins] are the only big time professional sports team whose name is an unequivocal racial slur. After all, how would we react if the team was named the Washington Negroes? Or the Washington Jews? ... It is more than just a racial reference, it is a racial epithet.

However, “negro,” while seriously outdated, was never a slur. And if you’re going to talk about naming a team the Jews, then we really need to talk about the Boston Celtics and the Minnesota Vikings. It would be much different if the team was called the Washington N*****s or the K***s. But no one, not even in their most insensitive moment, would’ve ever thought to use those as team names. While those terms may have been thrown around thoughtlessly by bigoted people, very few people would’ve thought to use them so publicly. Those words were such obvious ethnic slurs that they were beyond the pale.

But “redskins?”

I’ll be the first to admit that perhaps this word always was a slur, or seen as such by Native Americans, and most of us just didn’t know it until relatively recently. Or…it could be that this new feeling toward and old term came about as a result of the RedPower movement of the late 1960s, in which case a solution to this issue isn’t quite so simple.

Most people who support the use of Native American imagery and mascots for sports teams do so on the grounds that they believe they’re honoring their traditions of courage, dignity, and leadership…not to mention their fighting skills…and don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to be “honored” in this way. They also don’t understand why they can’t be allowed to have as much fun with their mascots as other teams do.

It's tough.

There may be a solution though. There is a people known for their courage, dignity, leadership...and especially their fighting skills. And no one would catch any flak for stereotyping them or desecrating their traditions. It wouldn’t be offensive to anyone. In fact, I think that Washington would gain a whole new fan base if they changed their name to represent this group.

Of course…they’d have to get the permission of Paramount Pictures first. But it’s the perfect name.

Can’t you just see it now…the Washington Klingons.