June 19, 2013

Leonard Pitts: Team names and mascots are no tribute to Native Americans

Fans of teams that exploit and demean Indians are fooling themselves if they think it's an honor.

See if this makes sense to you:

For years, I've argued with certain African-American people about their insistence upon using the so-called N-word which, to my ears, is, inalterably, a statement of self-loathing. They say I don't understand. They say the word no longer means what it has always meant. They say it's just a friendly fraternal greeting.

I say one cannot arbitrarily decide that a word -- especially an old and bloodstained word -- suddenly means something other than what it always has. I say that, while language does change over time, it doesn't do so because a few of us want it to or tell it to. And I say that if I call you an "idiot," but say that "idiot" now means "genius," you will be no less insulted.

Does that seem logical? If so, then perhaps you can understand my impatience with people who insist on defending the Washington football team whose nickname is a racial slur.

The latest is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Last week, he responded to a letter from members of the House Congressional Native American Caucus questioning the appropriateness of the name "Redskins." That name, wrote Goodell, "is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect." The team took the name in 1933, he noted, to honor then-coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, who was reputedly (it is a matter of historical dispute) an American Indian.

"Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group," he wrote. In other words, we have changed the meaning. It no longer means what it has always meant.

As it happens Goodell's letter follows a novel -- though ultimately failed -- effort earlier this year by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to ban Indian team names and mascots at primary and secondary schools. The complaint MDCR filed with the Education Department argued that such things are not merely insulting, but damaging. It cited the work of Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the effects of the team names and imagery on Native American students.

She has found empirical proof that those names and imagery lead to lowered self-esteem and sense of community worth among American Indian kids. They also damage aspirations and heighten anxiety and depression.

In other words, seeing their people reduced to mascots is toxic to Indian children. And if the names and images in general are damaging, how much more harmful is "Redskins"?

That name, after all, was never neutral, but was, rather, a hateful epithet hurled by people who were stealing from and committing genocide against, those they saw as savage and subhuman. So calling a football team the "Washington Redskins" as a way of honoring an Indian makes precisely as much sense as calling a soccer team "The Warsaw Kikes" as a way of honoring a Jew.

Fans of franchises bearing Indian names often resist changing them out of sentiment. Owners meanwhile, are loath to tamper with lucrative trademarks.

That's understandable. But it is also short-sighted.

You can delude yourself all you want. Things are what they are, and as Rick Perry learned in 2011 when he was called to answer for a certain inconveniently named rock, this nation's ugly racial past has a way of poking through the polite lies and evasions we use to prettify history and justify ourselves. So it is with Washington's football team and its nickname.

This is not about honor and even less about "strength, courage, pride and respect." It is rather about moral integrity, intellectual honesty and the immutable weight of certain words. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, or never do, doesn't change the fact:

"Redskins" is a curse word.

 

The author will be chatting with readers Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. on www.miamiherald.com.

 

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. He can be contacted at lpitts@miamiherald.com

 

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