Redskins and Whities

All Nations Drum.  Photo by Callen Harty.

All Nations Drum. Photo by Callen Harty.

Maybe I’m being overly simplistic about this but it seems to me that if I’m using a term and someone points out to me that it is offensive I would stop using that term out of respect for our common humanity. If someone asks me not to use a nickname they’ve been given because they don’t like it and it hurts them I won’t call them by that name anymore, even if I’m not even sure why they don’t like it. It’s a matter of respect. Maybe I’m a bit naïve, but it also seems to me that an enlightened society should have the capacity to look at itself and grow in the same way. If our laws are shown to be discriminatory against a class of people we change the laws. If our terminology is shown to offend a class of people we find new words. It’s really not that difficult. It is really a simple matter of respect.

So why is there such resistance to changing team names that are offensive to Native Americans? This is an issue that has been ongoing for fifty years. In that time many teams have changed their names with no great detriment to the high school or university. Others have not so much as thought about it. Still others seem less willing to change than ever. The issue has come to the forefront again because of a couple of recent headlines.

Here in Wisconsin a bill was introduced to make it easier for high schools to retain names that may be considered offensive by others. Republican sponsors of the bill introduced it in an effort to repeal Act 250, which gave a single citizen who believes a team name is offensive the right to demand a hearing by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The law made the schools bear the burden of proving their team names were not discriminatory or offensive, making it easier for the DPI to demand the name be changed. The proposed new law would repeal Act 250, require a large number of signatures to challenge a name, and put the burden of proof on the signatories. It would also vacate previous DPI decisions that are already set to force a couple schools to change their team names, as well as move the final decision from the DPI to the Department of Administration (DOA), which falls under the Governor’s office.

The other recent story is that members of the Oneida Nation have focused efforts on getting the Washington Redskins to change their name. A couple weeks ago they held a protest outside of Lambeau Field when the Washington team visited Green Bay. The protest drew national attention. However, it may have had little or no impact. The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has publicly stated he will not even consider such a change. Why he refuses to even talk about it can only be conjecture, but it can be said with certainty that in refusing to even consider it he is not looking at our common humanity or listening respectfully to those who are offended by the name.

Let’s be direct about this. Redskin is a racially charged, derogatory term. It should be dropped as the moniker of not only Washington, D. C.’s National Football League franchise, but by schools all over the country that still use it. Every dictionary defines it as an offensive term for Native Americans. When you look at it from the point-of-view of how we respect each other as human beings all arguments for keeping the name fall to the wayside. It is not the only word used by sports teams that is offensive to indigenous people, but it is the most offensive. I believe the others should be dropped as well, but Redskins should be the first to go.

Granted, the issue of a team’s name is minor compared to the genocide inflicted upon Native Americans by European settlers on this continent. It is minor compared to laws and other discriminatory practices that America’s oppressed minorities face on a daily basis. But it is reflective of that history and those circumstances. It represents the worst of our feelings about our Native brethren and shows that they are second or third class citizens (or worse) in this nation that proclaims to be a nation where all men are created equal.

Imagine, if you will, being a white minority in this country and teams around the nation having names like the Southern Crackers, Yankee Whitefaces, or the Whities. Now, you may think that you would not be offended by this and as things stand now maybe you wouldn’t be because white people are the dominant ruling culture. But if this country had been overtaken by another country or another race of people and then those people started naming their teams like that imagine how it would feel. One has to take into account not only the names, but the history and symbolism of those words and how social stigmatization plays into it. No one in our country in today’s age would name their team the Whities, but that’s because it is the dominant culture. Someone from that dominant culture can choose to name their team the Redskins, Braves, Indians, or other like-minded names because Native Americans are still not equal in our society. It is as simple as that and it is given as little thought as naming a team the Badgers, Tigers, or after other wild animals.

Typically this is the point where someone will stand up and say, “But what about the Vikings? What about the Fighting Irish? Or the Celtics? Those names were chosen to honor those cultures and nobody is offended by that.” True that. But let’s look a little closer. The Vikings play in Minnesota, a state with a huge Scandinavian population. The name was chosen to honor the ancestors of the dominant culture of that state. If Scandinavian people were regularly discriminated against in our culture and that team name was chosen by someone from a dominant and ruling ethnic group because they felt it represented a bloodthirsty fighting spirit then maybe there would be cause for Scandinavians to be upset by it. Likewise with the Fighting Irish, the Celtics, and other similar names. These names were all chosen to honor heritage, not to disparage it or to co-opt a perception of what that heritage means as a way to represent a warrior attitude in sports.

There are also arguments about honoring the tradition of the name and mascot and about the huge expense of changing the names, particularly of professional sports franchises like the Blackhawks, Redskins, Braves, and the like. But sports teams have changed cities, names, and traditions often. When the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee they became the Brewers. When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D. C. they became the Nationals. The Kansas City Chiefs were the Dallas Texans until the 1960s. The New Orleans Hornets professional basketball team just changed its name this year to the Pelicans. There are many, many more instances of teams changing their names. While there is a cost it apparently is not significant enough to deter a team that wants to rebrand itself.

I believe that it does come down to those who resist these changes simply being entrenched in their own worldview and not being willing to accept others. It is a matter of not listening. It is a matter of not respecting others. But it is time now for them to honestly listen to the conversation, to actually hear why this is important and why certain terms are unacceptable in the 21st century. If they don’t, then maybe it is time for consumer boycotts and other actions. The one thing we know they will listen to is money (or the lack of it). It may take a while to build enough momentum for that, but if appeals to humanity and mutual respect don’t work, then a hurt to the pocketbook just might.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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