A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Redskins and Other Indian Mascots: Racism or a Tempest in a Teapot?

Today's post is written by my friend and colleague at Ashland Theological Seminary, Dan Hawk. Dan is a Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and has spent years interacting with the Native American community in dialogue and building bridges. I ask that you will consider his words and respond if you desire. Dan will be monitoring the discussion and may join the conversation. This is a topic that can generate more heat than light, so let's make sure the conversation remains civil. I may weigh in with my own thoughts later on in the week, since I am a life-long Cleveland Indians fan.
A recent call to replace the mascot of the Washington Redskins has propelled the issue of Indian mascots from the margins to the mainstream. At heart is the accusation that the Redskins moniker must be rejected because it is racist and offensive. The issue has gained momentum through high-profile support in public forums, most notably by Bob Costas (Costas on Redskins Name) and conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer (Redskins and Reason) and Kathleen Parker (Redskins Name Is Ready for Retiring). The ensuing flurry has generally focused on the question of whether or not the nickname is offensive, and in whose eyes. Supporters of the mascot cite polls to argue that Redskins is not an offensive term. (See, for example, the videos at CBS Stations Refuse Oneida Indian Ad.) Those who protest the mascot argue that Redskin is a racial slur on a par with others American society has rejected (Fight Against "Redskins" About More Than Just a Name).

Whether or not the Redskin nickname is offensive will be endlessly debated. What cannot be questioned is that the term is a racial slur and has been employed as such for centuries by mainstream society. While the term had relatively benign origins in the colonial era, white society took it up in the 19th Century, as it did other color-coded slurs, as a symbol for the negative stereotypes it attached to the indigenous peoples of the continent. Throughout the history of the United States, "redskin" has been associated with such attributes as "primitive," "savage," "lazy," and "dirty" in American thinking, literature and public discourse. My question is this. Why does labeling Native Americans as "redskins" and caricaturing them through mascots remain one of the few remaining socially-acceptable expressions of bigotry in the United States? And what does this say about mainstream America?

Native American mascots are but one way of the many ways that America "plays Indian." We dress up in Indian clothing and imitate Indian customs. We teach our youth Indian lore in scouting programs and summer camps. We give clubs and social organizations Indian names. We identify ourselves with Native people through sports mascots and through phony rituals at games, with war whoops, war dances, Indian drums, and tomahawk chops. These expressions of playing Indian have a long history (remember the Boston Tea Party?) and are now deeply-embedded in the American cultural psyche.

Mainstream society began to play Indian only when and where Native peoples had been conquered and removed from the land or otherwise from public view. On the frontier, Indians were bloodthirsty savages. Once eliminated, they became noble savages-- romantic figures in a national mythology that cast Settler America as the wave of the future and Native America as a bygone past. Caricaturing the Indian as "the vanishing American" allowed mainstream America to sanitize a history of conquest, deceit, and dispossession and to construct an idealized portrait of our history-- without the troublesome presence of Indians to remind us otherwise. Playing Indian served a supporting function, enabling America to maintain its self-identity as an Old World civilization transplanted and purified in a New World setting. By dressing up like Indians and imitating Indians we, who trace our ancestry to lands outside this one, express our conviction that we belong to this land. And we reinforce our national sense-of-self as an exceptional combination of the Old and the New.

Mascots and caricatures of indigenous people allow us to maintain the fiction. That's why so much heat is generated when Indian mascots are challenged. Doing so unmasks the Idealized Indian of the past and uncovers our national determination to keep real indigenous people invisible in the present. It raises the inconvenient truth that every last non-indigenous one of us is complicit with a massive and longstanding program to exclude Native peoples; we are, all of us, still playing Indian in one form or another. Rejecting Indian mascots rejects the attitudes that reinforce them and the practices that emanate from those attitudes. We should make the Washington Redskins history.


Dennis Sanders said...

I guess I'll go first. This arguement tends to bother me because it generates more heat than light and unfortunately, this post does the same.

He start his article off with the phrase, "Whether or not the Redskin nickname is offensive will be endlessly debated." I thought this might mean he was going to share some viewpoint that no one is thinking about and cause us to think more deeply on this issue. Instead, the post then goes into the standard argument against the use of the term. The writing started off looking to shed light, but instead it just threw more heat.

I would tend to lean on preferring that the name be changed, but I don't think it is as pressing an issue as people make it out to be and the side arguing for change tends to come off as arrogant and graceless. The one outlier was Charles Krauthammer's column which was did expose more light than heat. He didn't come off as self-righteous but shared how names that might have been acceptable at one time are no longer. That arguement I can accept. I don't think the owners of the Redskins are racist or want to belittle Native Americans. There is time for righteous anger, but I don't think this is the time. Guilt and shame can sometimes make people change, but in other cases, such as this one, it can make people more defensive, not less.

Is Redskins and outdated term? Yes. It is offensive? Most likely. It is used with malicious intent? No. I think we need to respond more with grace than with self-righteousness.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for your comments.

I will let Dan respond to the substance of your comments, if he desires, but as the one who published this, I feel the need to speak up in reference to your comments on the tone of the post.

Dan went through several revisions of this post for precisely the reason you suggest-- he did not want to come off as arrogant or self-righteous. I have to say that I did not detect such a tone in his words at all. He was very honest about the history of it all, but one can tell the hard truth and still be civil. I think Dan's post fulfills both qualities. If I believed it did not, I would never have published it.

Let me ask you a question-- How would you feel if a new baseball team decided to take as their name the n-word? (I can't bring myself to spell it out.) And then design a logo that was a caricature of an African American male?

Dan Hawk said...

Dennis, I'm interested first of all to know how what I've written follows a "standard argument." I agree with you that Krauthammer's is a good column, but he is wrong on one point. The use of "Redskin" has not changed in American parlance. It has been used as a slur for centuries. What *has* changed is the acceptability of employing racial slurs. I am not convinced by arguments that the retention of the slur is not malicious. That is a red herring. Can people use a slur without malicious intent? Sure. That was Paula Deen's defense, as I understand it. Willful ignorance, however, conveys something altogether different. The term still a slur, no matter the intent. Using it says more about those who use it than those to whom it is directed.

Dennis Sanders said...

Dan-are we saying that the owners and fans of the Redskins are racists? Because making such an accusation is quite serious and demands a serious response.

Allan- I probably wouldn't like it, but as I said, I tend to learn against using such terms. I'm not saying that it's okay and we should move on. But I worry that a lot of the outrage is more about political correctness than it is about reconciliation.

I'm mindful of two articles; one by Megan McArdle last year talked about the consequences of making something taboo. It usually requires a harsh punishment (think child molester). She notes that we have made racism a taboo as well. In that light, it can make sense that the owners or fans take umbrabge because you are calling them one of the worst things imaginable.

The other is by Maria Dixon on the whole Paula Deen mess. In that instance she talks up grace and takes progressives to task for talk about grace but not practice it.

I'm not saying that the name should stay. But if we are going to start saying something or someone is racist, then we need realize such words have consquences. Calling someone a racist is a serious thing. Our culture has defined it as one of the worse things and you can't be a little bit racist.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I don't think anyone is saying that the fans and owners are racists. I'm an Indians fan, after all. But racism can be embedded in a situation with people not realizing it. There is a larger history here that must be acknowledged.

I understand the consequences of making something taboo, but I would say that there are some things that should be taboo.

As far as political correctness, anyone who knows me knows I do my best to be politically incorrect because I know it will anger the pc crowd, which is one of my favorite hobbies. And, yes, progressives can be just as graceless as conservatives. I witness that all the time.

Dan Hawk said...

I'm not calling anyone a racist. My point is that the term "redskin" is a racial slur. My question is why the preponderance of Americans and sports fans have no problem continuing to use it. My argument is that questioning the mascot touches a racial tension and past that strikes at the core of American identity. My rationale is that the mascot issue is the tip of the iceberg of deep and unresolved issues that play out today in ways America sees itself and deals with indigenous people.

Kimberlee said...

Author Kent Nerburn relates the problem of connecting with Native Americans as mascots only, rather than human beings with a profound sense of awareness. To paraphrase, Nerburn watches a broadcast of another sports team that also uses Native Americans as a logo for profit and gain. And while grown adults "pretend" to act like they erroneously think Native Americans are (war paints, toy tomahawks, war whoops, dancing, and mass produced artificial feathers) it is done with little awareness of the
"other" being ridiculed.

Why not make a mascot of their own race and behave the same way? Most would consider it insulting to display the dominant race in a way that demeans, belittles,shames and ridicules themselves merely for profit and a fleeting sense of team spirit? It gives people a sense of belonging.

What makes this decades long issue a cause for deep sadness is the way in which sports fans pass on this same behavior to their children by encouraging and rewarding the perpetuation of this diplay all the while denying there is anything wrong.

In elementary, middle and high school our students are told it is wrong to bully others. Most of us who have children that are bullied or as adults are bullied by a spouse, sibling, co-worker or boss know to well the damage that is done. We might even vehemently fight for some change in policy when our rights as human beings have been violated.

There is a disconnection with Native Americans in present day American culture. I have heard people question if Indians are still alive, do they drive cars, what kind of clothes do they wear and do they live in tipis? And I have heard them say that Indians should just get over the mascot and move on because it is no big deal. Ignorance and callousness should be cause for alarm.

I recently listened to a Sunday morning newscast where it was related that 90% of sportsfans see absolutely nothing wrong with the logo and they they are not offended whatsoever. What about the other 10%? Sports is big business. A loyal fanbase boosts the local economy and the clothing, like it or not, is used as a status symbol.

I have a good friend who says "Noone swallows the whole elephant at once, just in small pieces." American culture predominantly has swallowed the elephant, non the wiser, and perpetuates a wrong doing. Because the elephant is no longer external it becomes invisible, like our indigenous people, and like our dignity as human beings when personal entertainment trumps compassion and caring and the way in which we value others.

Praticing self awareness of our own troublesome behaviors is how we teach our children to become productive and responsible citizens.

Some sportsfan argue that the mascot/logo exists out of respect for our Native people but I fail to see how. Fans do not flock to the stadiums or host weekend parties to honor Native people. What lurks beneath the veneer of "just plain fun" and misconstrued ideas of American pride?

Richard H said...

I've long said I'd be happy to let a team use my name. Just a tiny percentage of revenue would be sufficient.

Example: http://hajduk.hr/

Dan Hawk said...

Thank you Kimberlee for your eloquent response. I especially appreciate the way you connect the issue to the dispositions we pass down to our children.

Scott Endress said...

There is no argument for not getting rid of these logos and names that have no place in this century. Can you imagine a soccer team in Germany named the Jews with a caricature of a Jew? There was a Native American holocaust and it happened in the good ol' USA. I'm a Cleve. Indian fan but I would be glad if they could go back to being the Spiders, which they were before 1900.

Ramone said...

I confess that I am beginning to become upset when I hear the mascot issue characterized as being about "political correctness." If someone says the n-word, and a black person is upset about it, is the black person's complaint about it just being "politically correct"?

The mascots are a form of institutionalized racism. They have been in the system so long that the majority has become numb. It took over a hundred years for the majority to get enough feeling back in its limbs to realize that treating black people differently was wrong, and that they deserved the same rights that the majority has. I am glad the term "political correctness" didn't exist during the Civil Rights movement, because I'm sure it would have been used by the majority to complain about the inconvenience of having to care about black people.

The bottom line is that the majority is numb to the voice of Native Americans, and sees nothing wrong with being numb. We're happy for them to be caricatures and mascots. When they start raising their voices against our caricaturing, we become upset at the shaking of our system. Having blood pumped back into limbs that were numb is uncomfortable, but we need it. We need to come alive. When we write off their existence and their voice, we aren't just treating them badly but are also keeping part of ourselves dead. Waking up to realize, acknowledge, value and listen to the Native voice in America has been too long in coming.