What’s In A Name?

What’s in a name? I didn’t have a strong opinion on the various controversies surrounding sports naming conventions until this morning. Listening to CSPAN as I drove into work, I realized how silly and in a way stubborn many are being when it comes to the names and imagery present in certain sports franchises. The question on CSPAN this morning, was “Is the Washington Redskins name offensive”, and at first glance, one might say no, as there is nothing inherently offensive when you hear that term, maybe. However, when you dig just a little deeper and you learn the history of this racial slur, combined with the imagery of what is supposed to be a Native American male with with dark, red skin, large nose, etc. how one defends this term and imagery under the guise of “tradition” or “history” baffles the mind.

I find it ironic that in this debate about imagery and names that the staunchest defenders of it’s continued usage often cite history and tradition as the main reason for their support, when the actual issue is the history and tradition behind these naming conventions. Where did this term “Redskin” come from? Where did this stereotypical imagery of a man with redskin, large nose, or big, wide, grin as is the case with the Cleveland Indians come from? To deny the racial and stereotypical bigotry and history behind this is amazing the more I listen and read the various comments of those against changing the name. We know for a fact that the term redskin was used not only as a descriptor of an entire people but also to refer to the very real and evil history where Native American scalps were used as a form of currency for trade. We also know that the era in which these names and images were adopted and considered appropriate to name one’s team after, was an era where using imagery and racial slurs toward minority groups was an accepted behavior. So when people defend the name Washington Redskins should we assume that supporters are a bunch of bigots not worthy of being considered part of the human race?

Of course, that is an extreme position for one to take, but is it anymore extreme than an opinion that essentially says that it’s perfectly OK to support a racial slur and iconography that mocks the physical and racial characteristics of Native Americans? What’s even more insane to me as a Black man, is listening to and hearing all the Black and other minority supporters who refer to the opponents of this name as silly, too PC, or call the debate ridiculous. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. In my experience, when it comes to racial debates, Black people can be some of the biggest hypocrites. This issue, especially concerning the Washington Redskins, where many of the fans are Black, is both surprising and typical all at the same time. A young, Black woman called into CSPAN this morning, after a caller to the Native American phone line finished describing how her grandfather would cry every time he heard the name redskin, and offered the comment that we all need to grow up as it’s not that serious. I gripped my steering wheel tight and fought not to scream angry a that ignorance this admitted Washington Redskin fan displayed.

Racist-pickaninnyImagine if there was a team called the Pickaninnies or the Sambos complete with logos of children with black skin, big white eyes, and big red lips. Can you seriously imagine a team called the Charlotte Pickaninnies in 2013? Maybe in 1932 like when the Redskins were established, but in 2013? Heck no! If there were a team that somehow survived the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, decades when we supposedly became more enlightened when it comes to diversity, yet still existed and their names and logo’s were defended due to tradition or history, Al Sharpton, the NAACP, Tavis Smiley, Dr. Cornel West, and a score of others would be ready to do another March On Washington to stop it. Black people all across the country would be marching, protesting, and giving their support, and any non-Black who supported the team would be labeled a racist outright. Yet, here in the DC area, plenty of Black Redskins fans eagerly support and defend this mockery of another race without question and outright hostility in some cases.

What I guess I don’t get, is why is this so difficult an issue to understand? You have an entire people that were victims of genocide. Their lands were stolen, people oppressed, and their culture, ethnicity, and race openly mocked even today. All they are asking is that in the modern era that we recognize that they like African Americans, Chinese Americans, Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, etc. deserve the same respect and decency afforded these groups. A decency and respect that recognizes that it is not OK to use racial slurs and imagery that mocks one’s racial identity in popular culture. It’s not like it’s impossible to change the name and iconography of a team. Let us also remember that terminology changes over time as well. Even “IF” the term redskin was ever acceptable even in the 30’s and it’s disgusting iconography, it sure as heck isn’t today. You would no more walk up to a Native American and call him or her a redskin, than you would call a Black person a Negro and in the case of the latter even Blacks used to call ourselves that.

So why hold on to the racist cultural heritage of America’s yesteryear? Will the team earn less touchdowns, miss more field goals, throw more incomplete passes, and never make it to the Super Bowl if they no longer identify themselves by the scalps of slaughtered Native Americans and mock their racial identity? As a people, an American people, whether we are a melting pot or a garden salad, we are all in this together. Part of recognizing our shared hopes, dreams, struggles, pains, and aspirations is accepting that respect and common decency should be paramount when dealing with one another. Ignoring one group’s pain so we can wear our favorite team’s colors, is the direct opposite of who we are supposed to be as a people.



  1. Hey, what do you think about the opinion some hold that Native Americans were called “redskins” because of the war paint they used before going to battle?

    They would paint their faces red (representing blood or something).

    They would say that the term “redskin” denotes warriors, not skin color. Therefore it is heroic, and not mocking.


    1. The problem is that there were hundreds of tribes, nations, cultures, and practices amongst Native Americans. Even if there was a particular group that did this, it wouldn’t erase the fact that it is well documented that the scalps of Native Americans was used as currency and called redskins regardless of what tribe the victim belonged and it was and has been a derogatory term for centuries.


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